Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne accelerated plans to distribute food vouchers to ice-storm-battered Toronto residents despite concerns from senior city officials that the spur-of-the-moment program would result in turmoil.
The concerns are detailed in correspondence between the city and the province after December’s crippling storm knocked out power to about one million Torontonians and hundreds of thousands of other Southern Ontario residents.
E-mails from top bureaucrats obtained through freedom of information legislation also show city staff struggled at some points to get timely information from the province about its food-aid rollout. The program to help those whose food spoiled during the blackout did prove chaotic. Scores of residents waited for hours only to be told to come back another day because grocery store gift cards had run out.
“Needless to say our OW [Ontario Works] offices are being inundated as we feared,” Toronto city manager Joe Pennachetti wrote on the morning of the Dec. 31 launch in a message marked “urgent” to Barney Owens, the province’s director of operations in the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management.
Three days earlier, Mr. Pennachetti had expressed reservations about the provincial government’s food-compensation plan, the behind-the-scenes correspondence shows.
“Historically, we have left that to private insurers,” he noted in a Dec. 28 e-mail to provincial cabinet secretary Peter Wallace and several others. Later in the day, after consulting municipal staff, Mr. Pennachetti advised Mr. Wallace, the province’s top civil servant, that previous emergencies had convinced city officials that food aid was best left to non-profit agencies such as the Daily Bread Food Bank.
The province pushed ahead and even moved up the start date for distributing gift cards by two days, to New Year’s Eve, at the request of the Premier, according to an e-mail from the duty operations officer at the provincial emergency centre.
In the ensuing days, the Progressive Conservatives and NDP criticized the Liberal government over the program. Ms. Wynne believes it was necessary, the Premier’s spokeswoman Zita Astravas said.
Ontario government reports on whether organizations worked well together during the storm and the delivery of supplies and services was effective were delayed by the election. A report from Toronto’s ice-storm review panel said Toronto by-laws allow insufficient space between trees and power lines and that Toronto Hydro did not have the capacity to handle the nearly 400,000 calls it fielded after the storm.
“We heard firsthand the difficulties of families who were without power for days. In our view these people couldn’t wait for support,” the Premier’s spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “In times of emergency, it is rare that there is a unanimous choice on how to proceed. Leadership is about making the tough decisions.”
Asked about his concerns over the food-aid program, Mr. Pennachetti said in an e-mail that city and provincial officials learned from it and will be better prepared next time. He maintained that it worked well.
“The food card program was a much-needed initiative and was well co-ordinated under the emergency circumstances and on short notice,” Mr. Pennachetti told The Globe and Mail.