This article was featured in the Winter issue of the Stand and profiles NSGEU members who worked and volunteered during the Thanksgiving Day flood in Cape Breton.
On Thanksgiving (Monday, October 10th, 2016), Cape Breton was hit by a slow-moving low pressure weather system, the remnants of Hurricane Matthew, that had recently devastated sections of Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Southeastern and Eastern U.S. as it moved north up the Eastern seaboard over the Atlantic Ocean.
At 3 p.m. Environment Canada reported that over 100 mm. of rain had fallen in the Sydney area and the rain kept coming. Roads were blocked, bridges washed out, and in low lying areas, flooding began. The waters continued to rise until after the rain finally stopped on Tuesday morning. Estimates are that a total of 240 mm. of rain fell in the Sydney area.
Paul Moore, Chief Steward of Local 1 (Civil Service in the Cape Breton region), contacted The Stand to share a few of the stories he had heard at a Local meeting following the flood. He wanted others to know about the amazing work NSGEU members had done serving the public during and after this disaster. Paul works in Adoptions in the Department of Community Services and although his house suffered physical damage during the storm and he lost his basement, he was able to save most of his belongings unlike some friends and neighbours who lost everything.
“I was amazed to hear the stories from our members at our Local meeting,” says Moore. “Many of our members were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, some were flooded themselves, but they left their families and homes to work long hours to ensure the public was safe.”
NSGEU members who work for the Civil Service in Transportation, Infrastructure and Renewal (TIR) were first responders in this flood. They were out on the roads, making it safe for emergency and Nova Scotia Power vehicles to get through.
“I got a call that Hwy 125 was flooding”, says Danny Laffin, a Maintenance Supervisor in Sydney River. “So, I drove out to the site of the flooding to assess the situation.”
Danny says that in his 33 years in TIR, he had never seen anything like what he saw that day and night.
“The standard that we maintain is that all pipes, culverts and bridges be able to handle a once in a 100 year storm – about 100 mm. of rain. This storm dumped over double that at once and the infrastructure is simply not built to handle that – and it didn’t. We had washouts on Beechmount Rd., Mountain Rd., Eskasoni Hwy Rt. 216, and Coxheath Rd.”
Danny has high praise for his crew and his fellow supervisors who worked quickly that day and night to secure the safety of the roads for the public and emergency vehicles. The five supervisors, NSGEU members Paul Whelan (Marion Bridge); Mike Boudreau (Port Morien); Sheldon Fiander (Bras D’or); John MacPhee (Sydney River); Lloyd Hall (Coxheath), came together as a team to identify priorities and develop a swift plan of action.
“The first roads to be prioritized were the roads that were washed out isolating communities. They had to be able to be reached by emergency crews and Nova Scotia Power.”
Being the first out in the storm comes with some safety risk: “We were out on the road in the middle of the storm in the dark cutting a big spruce off the road. The wind was howling and rain just pouring down. We could not hear a thing. We looked around after we finished with the tree and another huge tree had fallen just behind us. We did not hear it fall,” says Danny.
The number of highway workers employed by the Department changes with the seasons. In October, Danny was working with a crew of 6 to 10 CUPE 1867 members. During the storm and following it, they had to use a large number of contractors as well. It was a tough and stressful couple of weeks with long intense hours of work.
“From the Thanksgiving Day storm to early January, we have spent much less time with our families. I’m glad to report we are now, as of January 15, back to our regular schedule and normal duties.”
“I cannot stress enough how proud I am of my fellow NSGEU members and CUPE members who gave up their own home time to assist others.”
Tracey Inder is a Financial Service Officer with TIR. She is responsible for the Area’s budget along with the financial forecast. She started working for TIR 18 years ago as a Clerk 2 and moved into her current position in 2005.
She was on the road when the storm hit – on her way to help her son whose car was stuck in Frenchvale. While she was there she took some photos of a bridge not far away that had water flowing over it as well as under it.
“When you work in Transportation, you are always thinking about your job,” she says.
“For work to be done, budgeted and accounted for, we need quite a bit of information. The Supervisors do an initial impact assessment. They need photos of the location and the damage. Then they need forms and photos of the work they have to do. Every spot needs a pre-evaluation and a post-evaluation form.”
“I have five boxes of paperwork on work orders just related to this storm,” says Inder. “I work closely with a clerk and together, we do a pretty good job staying on top of things.”
Tracey is as cool as a cucumber and draws on her past experience when faced with challenges like this storm.
“We’ve had storm damage before. I’ve been through three or four of them,” she says. The first couple were difficult – the paperwork trail was not there and I had to chase things down afterward. But we have experience now and we all work as a team. I love my job.”
“I do worry sometimes about the safety of the crews,” she says. “If it wasn’t for them moving trees and debris, other first responders wouldn’t be able to do their jobs.”
Estimates are that there was $2.9 million damage to Cape Breton County infrastructure as a result of this storm.
Sean O’Toole works for Nova Scotia Environment as a Public Health Officer, appointed under the Health Protection Act to inspect food establishments and investigate health hazards in consultation with the Medical Officer of Health. He has been doing this job for 12 years. He lives and works in the Sydney area and is responsible for inspecting restaurants and food establishments – any place that retails food – including daycares and long term care facilities. Although he had a lot to do following the flood in his regular job as an Officer to ensure public health was being protected, his work as a volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross also stood out.
Sean became a volunteer with the Red Cross in 2006 and has taken national training in disaster management. He was on the ground in 2011, as volunteer and Manager of Operations helping the community of Slave Lake deal with a fire that devastated much of their city. Sean was contacted by the Red Cross as the flood waters rose in Sydney. He was asked if he could help set up and manage a shelter for those were displaced by the storm. As part of the Personal Disaster Assistance Team, he gave out comfort kits, blankets and sock monkeys for kids, and provided food and shelter.
“Members of our team can be a source of strength and hope, for someone who has been affected by disaster – sometimes, a candle, in what can be the darkest period in someone’s life.“
The days following the flood were very busy for Sean and other Local members, both Public Health Officers and Environment Inspectors that possess the Certificate in Public Health Inspection (Canada), a nationally recognized certification. In his role as Public Health Officer, he inspected local businesses to gather information about how the flood affected them and to help them return to normal operations. Some needed guidance about what to throw and what to keep because of power outages and the potential for spoiled food. In a few cases, Public Health Officers had to take regulatory action to ensure public health was protected. Environment Inspectors were also part of the inspection teams along with CBRM Bylaw Officers, Building Inspectors, and the Deputy Fire Marshalls that inspected homes in the flood area to determine whether they were fit for people to return to.
“The flood resulted in oil tanks being overturned and there were concerns about oil spillage and clean up from oil tanks, sewage, and potential mould contamination.”
He says that one important lesson he has learned is that you never know what people are dealing with in their life and you need to maintain objectivity at all times.
“They could have a palliative parent at home… you never really know and need to approach people with an open mind.”
He wanted to give a shout-out to all the other volunteers who work in the Civil Service.
“We have great volunteers in the public service and we enjoy giving back to the community in which we live and work.”