EXCLUSIVE: City emails seem to show panic, desperation over March storm

WATCH ABOVE: Documents obtained exclusively by Global News seem to show panic, desperation and resignation by city staffers towards the massive snow storm that hit the Halifax region March 18. Julia Wong has some highlights.

HALIFAX – City officials seemed stressed and overwhelmed by the crippling effects of the March 18 winter storm, according to internal e-mails obtained exclusively by Global News in a Access to Information Request.

The 250-page document paints a picture of the inner workings of the municipality between the morning of March 17 and the evening of March 18. On March 18, the city was pounded with more than 50 centimetres of snow. Compounding the situation was the fact the city was still digging itself out from a storm a few days prior.

RELATED: Latest Halifax winter storm cancels buses, ferries

The March 18 storm shut down Halifax Transit and suspended ferry services. Flights in and out of the airport were grounded. Residents were asked to stay off the roads so crews could clear the snow. Many businesses, universities and government officers were shut down for the day. The city made the unprecedented move to ban on-street parking entirely until it could widen the roads to traffic.

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READ MORE: Halifax grins to a halt under the weight of another winter storm

Snow preparations

On March 17 at 6:09 a.m., Rob Muise, a road operations and construction supervisor with the  municipality, wrote Chris MacDougall, who is not a municipal employee, to express his concerns about how crews cleaned up the March 15 storm and his worries about how residents will react to the upcoming clean-up.

Pedestrians walk on the street in Halifax on Sunday, March 15, 2015.
Pedestrians walk on the street in Halifax on Sunday, March 15, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

“To make a long story short if we do that tomorrow during a week day we will be crucified Thursday morning and all day Friday by angry residents trying to get to or from work; Sunday people had time to shovel and we somewhat patient a second bout and they will all be angry,” Muise wrote.

RELATED: More snow for Halifax? Say it ain’t so

As city officials received a clearer picture of the forecast, Darrin Natolino, winter works supervisor, wrote Chris Mitchell, who is involved with road operations and construction.

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“I don’t know what to say after looking at the forecast. Call the army?” he wrote.

“Another 30 centimetres will paralyze the city.”

Mitchell responded that an emergency operations meeting would be helpful to send a message of confidence to residents.

However, it didn’t appear as though Natolino thought that would be enough. His email seems to project a sense of worry about how much crews can do.

“We’re beyond trying to instill confidence…this will require an intervention from above,” Natolino replied.

Desperation over snowfall

The e-mails then seem to carry a panicked tone.

“The world may be ending…snow won’t stop,” writes Natolino on March 17 at 8:26 a.m.

A late winter storm hit Halifax on March 18 leading many closures in the city and across Nova Scotia. Marieke Walsh / Global News

He then sends out an agenda for an emergency operations meeting scheduled for that day. The agenda touches on how severe the storm could become, concerns about equipment and how newsworthy the upcoming blizzard will be.

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“I sent this appointment out hoping to get together to discuss the potential of another 25-30 cm storm. No joking matter…this will paralyze the city.

  1. Side streets and several main streets could be reduced to 1 lane.
  2. Sidewalk clearing will no longer be possible using conventional equipment in many cases.
  3. Visibility will be further reduced – sight lines gone.
  4. Hauling will require equipment well beyond what we currently have under contract – we’ll need to engage Procurement to get anything with wheels and a box.
  5. Public affairs – this will be national news. We need a plan to deal with it.”

Help from the outside

The e-mails seem to paint a picture that the municipality was perhaps not as prepared as it could have been.

One message sent March 17 at 7:16 a.m. from Darrin Natolino requests the assistance of another municipality. The name of the municipality was redacted but later e-mails suggest the recipient was a staffer from a city in New Brunswick.

“Wondering if you by any chance have the ability to rent out your blowers to a city buried in snow?” he wrote. A few hours later, the request was turned down due to that city’s snow clearing efforts.

“Doesn’t look like we can help out right now Darrin,” the unnamed staffer writes. “We are used to this crap but you guys have had a New Brunswick style winter this year.”

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The day of the storm, March 18 at 10:20 a.m., an e-mail from Natolino further suggests there is not enough equipment on the roads to deal with the snowfall.

“Making calls to get additional heavy equipment from our partners. Dexter and ARCP have secured a few pieces and trucks. We’re still making calls for more. We have located a blower on the south shore (it’s an exi-military unit now owned by a contractor). It’s a truck mounted blower. It’s being brought to town if possible, and we’ll put it into service if it meets our needs,” he writes.

When asked why the municipality didn’t bring in equipment earlier, HRM spokesperson Jennifer Stairs said it acted as quickly as it could have.

“On the coast, weather can change very quickly. We only got those forecasts showing that significant amount of snow earlier on Tuesday. Those calls started to go out as soon as we were able to,” she said, adding that the bigger issue was trying to find people who were trained to use the gear.

The storm begins

The documents include several updates about the status of the roads as the storm hit. The emails seem to paint a grim picture that city staff were overwhelmed by the snowfall.

“Approx 20 cms down and snow still falling. Did have all routes open but back to square 1 as of this time,” writes Andrea Mehner, a road operations and construction supervisor with the municipality.

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A pedestrian walks up Novalea Drive in Halifax on March 18, 2015. Some parts of the city saw more than 50 centimetres of snowfall during the latest storm to hit the region. Cory McGraw/Global News

About 20 minutes later, an update from Darrin Natolino shows the situation turning from bad to worse on the priority one roads, priority two roads and the sidewalks.

“P1s – ****ed. P2s – more ****ed. Sidewalks – good luck finding one,” he writes.

When asked to respond to the emails’ seemingly desperate tone, HRM Spokesperson Jennifer Stairs said the storm was a difficult situation.

“I think the people were stressed. It’s entirely fair to say they had been working flat out for the past month and a half prior to that,” she said.

“People were tired and they were frustrated and I think they reached a point where, yes, it may have filtered into their language in an email.”

“I don’t think we panicked. We certainly had concerns and we acted accordingly.”

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There is also discussion of the storm’s similarity to White Juan, which dropped 100 centimetres of snow over the city in 2004.

RELATED: Latest winter storm reminiscent of White Juan: winter ops manager

“Been monitoring the radar and I wouldn’t be surprised if this system stalls and keeps dumping for 2-3 hours. It has barely moved in the last 2 hours. Reminiscent of Juan,” writes Darrin Natolino.

Reaching capacity

The e-mails also discuss the stress the snow is placing on the municipality’s snow clearing abilities.

“Snow storage across the HRM is at a serious level and there is little doubt that if the weather forecasts are correct, we will have another  foot or so of snow to deal with over the next few days,” writes Chris Mitchell at 9:02 a.m. on March 17.

At 10:47 a.m. on March 17, the conversation about storage and the feasibility of street plowing continues.

“Many of our streets in Timberlea/West Bedford/Sackville are  narrowed to a minimum,” writes Rob Muise.

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“Counselors [sic] need to be aware that snow will have to go somewhere and to expect numerous calls on excessive snow for a few days afterward. We are gonna have to hit these streets hard to keep them passable, calls will be hot.”

On March 18, city officials start to strategize about how to beat back the snow. The following email speaks specifically about Beechville Estates and Bedford West.

READ MORE: 5 things you need to know about the crazy amount of snow in Halifax

“Abandon sidewalks in these areas for the duration and let the sidewalk contractors focus on P1 and school areas. Remember, below this new snow there is lots of ice to remove yet. I think sidewalk and streets contractors may have a mouthful bigger than they can swallow at this time. (call it an emergency there is a breaking point),” writes Rob Muise.

That afternoon, Darrin Natolino sends a list of streets for crews to prioritize. The list includes Barrington Street, University Avenue, Summer Road, Bell Road and Robie Street along with a note that suggests regular travel in the city may not be possible for a while.

“This list will take 3 days at least,” he writes.

Trouble for emergency vehicles

An e-mail from Chris Mitchell at 9:49 a.m. on March 18 shows city officials predicting how long the clean-up will take and the impact that is having on first responders.

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“We are mobilizing all equipment we can get our hands on but right now, I do not see anything better than single lanes in many cases by 0800 tomorrow am. We have fire trucks unable to reach locations right now so are pulling equipment to hot spots to allow Fire to get to actual emergencies,” he writes.

Later in the afternoon, prior to the municipality’s emergency operations meeting, Darrin Natolino sends a topic to include in the meeting.

“For consideration from Fire: “For the 1400hrs call – two items to discuss, for fire can expect to encounter – hydrant access and street access.”” he writes.

State of emergency

As the snow starts to pile up around the city, discussion turns to whether Halifax should consider calling a state of emergency.

RELATED: Halifax winter storm clean up begins, no state of emergency declared

“They are considering State of Emergency but we need to advise what that gives us. Predominantly, that gives us no no [sic] cars on the road or on the streets downtown through daylight hours. Is there anything else we gain,” writes Chris Mitchell on March 18 9:34 a.m.
Deanna and Kylie McConnell were just some of the residents who picked up a shovel and dug themselves out of their street. Julia Wong/Global News

Then there is no mention of a possible state of emergency until 4:59 p.m. when a note is sent out to the media and to council. It explains how calling a state of emergency would give the municipality certain powers to restrict travel and take equipment from private companies for clearing purposes if necessary.

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“There have been some questions around declaring a state of emergency. It’s true the municipality has the ability to declare a state of emergency at any time and it has been discussed in regards to this ongoing storm…This is not a decision to be made lightly. At this time, the municipality does not feel taking this step would be warranted given the current status of conditions and clearing efforts,” the note reads.

However it adds that “this is an evolving situation.” Ultimately, the municipality never declared a state of emergency.

Council to discuss snow clearing

A report on the city’s snow clearing efforts and recommendations were released Friday. It will be discussed at council next Tuesday.

Despite the behind-the-scenes picture painted by the emails, HRM Spokesperson Jennifer Stairs said she hopes there is still public confidence in the municipality’s snow clearing abilities.

“We’ve taken this past winter very seriously and we understand there are areas where we can improve and that we are hoping council will look at those and adopt some of those recommendations,” she said.

“I would say, yes, I would hope we would be better prepared if we are unfortunate enough to get as bad a winter as we did last time.”