Although thousands of Toronto residents are still in the dark more than a week after a massive ice storm, Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said he is “terribly proud” of how quickly his crews have worked to restore electricity. And in an interview with The Globe, Mr. Haines said it’s not his job to navigate the unusual power split at city hall, where Mayor Rob Ford holds public briefings, but doesn’t sit on the city’s emergency committee.
At the onset of the storm, did you think it would take more than a week to restore power to all Torontonians?
Well, obviously we saw the devastation in many communities and we were doing some preliminary evaluations.
But, as you can well imagine, we weren’t able to give details as to exactly how long something like this was going to take.
There’s been a lot of public anger, though, and you’ve become in some ways the public face of the storm response. What’s that been like?
Well, I’m obviously very sympathetic to it. I was without power myself. I understand the importance in our lives of not having electricity.
And our lives have all been turned upside down.
But what I can say to people is even as we are beginning the final phases of the clean-up, there’s nothing we could have done to make the power come back any sooner.
Every single thing that could be done was done.
What has the lowest point been for you personally over the past week or so?
I don’t know if I have some low points. I mean, obviously there are some very, very tired people, including me. But you don’t think about that at this point. I will say that we’re probably running on adrenaline. I forget what day it is, to be candid with you. But it’s just one blur at this point. So I’m not sure I’m even to the point where I’m thinking about low points. I can tell you about high points, though. I can list those right now, my high points.
Okay, so what are some high points?
Really, the kind of interaction I’ve had with Torontonians over this last week. People that have come out of their homes when the Toronto Hydro crews have come there to repair the streets have been unbelievable. The spirit and the heart of Torontonians. I never knew – and I live in Toronto – that we were so deeply rooted in a community. I personally have seen some of the Toronto Hydro employees and the sacrifices that have taken place at a deeply personal level.
What lessons have you learned or do you take from this massive storm and outage?
Boy, I mean the magnitude of the thing and there’s so many things still to learn from it. What I will say is that I’ve seen a lot of things go right. The degree of the damage and the speed of the restoration I’m really proud of.
There are things I want to make better that I’ve learned, but I don’t have the answers to those.
Things like the call centre and our capacity to handle enormous volumes is certainly something I want to put my mind to over the next weeks ahead and work with my industry colleagues to see if there are ways that we can find solutions around those things. How do you answer 128,000 phone calls in a day, which is the number that came in on Sunday?
I’d like to actually bring someone in externally [to conduct a post-mortem] so it’s not just Toronto Hydro giving its own learnings. I’d like someone that may have been involved with Katrina or with Sandy, some of the major events that have happened in the U.S., who maybe could give us perspective.
Would burying power lines avoid such a massive outage in the future?
There is no perfect answer. Underground obviously costs a great deal more money, seven times on average more expensive than overhead. But it’s not a perfect solution.
It wasn’t that long ago we had floods this summer and people were asking ‘why is the electrical equipment underground?’
So you could have important electrical equipment underground, and if that chamber gets flooded you’ve got arcing and damage done that way.
And when we have breaks in the lines under the ground, they’re very hard to find. So you can imagine now with an overhead, you can drive down the road and the line is laying down and you can say, “There’s the damage.”
You’ve estimated that the storm will cost Toronto Hydro up to $10-million. Could customers pay higher power rates as a result?
We’re looking for a way for that not to be the case. We, of course, don’t receive any tax revenues from the City of Toronto. And so our only form of funding is through our customers.
But I’m going to put a challenge out to the [management] team in the morning to ask to see if we could find a way to absorb these dollars and see if the things that we won’t be doing – in other words, the tradeoffs – if they are less important than a rate increase, then I think those are good things for us to do.
I’m still getting the lights back on as opposed to counting the dollars. But I am thinking about that challenge and seeing if we can find a way to prevent a rate increase.
How challenging was it for you to navigate the unprecedented political situation at city hall?
[Laughs.] Well, obviously there’s a lot of media attention brought to that. It’s not my job.
At the beginning of the day, I run Toronto Hydro.
I report to the board of directors of Toronto Hydro and so my job was simple: Get the lights back on.
And so what I could do is I could give briefings to important people, politicians, who asked for them and I was able to do that and happy to do that.
And I think it worked effectively.
One of the things I was particularly proud of, if you will, is no matter who was talking about the damage done and the efforts going on, they said the same things.
And so there was a clear, uncomplicated and accurate reporting that came from everybody.
But that also includes councillors.
So it’s not just the question of reporting to the mayor, deputy mayor and premier.
There’s councillors that are also trying to get information so that they can be an important part of the communication chain to their constituency and making sure that they had that right information as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.