Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland called for urgent action from Canada’s telecommunications regulator, after politicians in Nova Scotia raised concerns that poor cellular service had prevented residents from receiving emergency alerts in an area of the province where four people were swept away by catastrophic flooding last weekend.
“It’s really not acceptable for people not to be able to get emergency alerts,” Ms. Freeland told reporters at an emergency command centre in Brooklyn, N.S., where the search continues for one of the four victims, a youth who has not been identified.
“It’s a very important issue and I will be raising it urgently with François-Philippe Champagne, the Minister of Industry.” She said she will be urging Canada’s telecommunication companies and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates the industry, to address the issue. She also noted the increasing rate and severity of natural disasters across the country.
As Ms. Freeland toured the site, new details emerged about the identities of the other three victims, whose bodies have been located since the flash flood. They are six-year-olds Natalie Hazel Harnish and Colton Sisco, and 52-year-old musician Nick Holland.
The two children were part of a group that fled their home in Brooklyn in the early morning hours on Saturday. They were overcome by a storm surge, which pushed their vehicle off a road and into a hayfield that suddenly flooded with about 10 feet of water, according to police.
Natalie’s father, Nick Harnish, told The Globe and Mail that although cellular service is “definitely an issue out there,” it was not a factor in Natalie and Colton’s deaths. The group fled their home about 30 minutes before the province issued its first emergency alert, at 3:06 a.m., asking people to shelter in place. “We were already fighting for our lives in the field at that point,” he said.
Ms. Freeland was responding to concerns expressed to The Globe on Wednesday by several Nova Scotia politicians. Abraham Zebian, the mayor of the municipality of West Hants, which includes Brooklyn, said some residents had informed him they had not received alerts. He said he had previously told Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston and Kings–Hants MP Kody Blois, in meetings and letters, about the unreliability of cellular service in the area, and the resulting unavailability of the 911 system, but had seen no action for the past two years.
Mr. Blois and John Lohr, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Emergency Measures, also said Wednesday that they were concerned about the issue.
Ms. Freeland got a glimpse of the unreliable service in the area on Thursday. Bell Canada erected a portable cellular site at the emergency command post she visited, to boost the local wireless signal.
Mr. Houston told reporters on Thursday that he is unhappy with the lack of progress on addressing cellular dead zones in the province. He said he will be seeking answers in the coming days about how well the alert system functioned during the floods.
“There are definite issues with cellphone coverage, and it’s a definite focus of ours,” he said.
The use of emergency alerts, which is overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, has been an issue in Nova Scotia. The RCMP were criticized for not using the National Public Alerting System – which allows authorities to issue emergency alerts via television, radio and cellphones – in April, 2020, to warn residents in Portapique, N.S., about a gunman who killed 22 people in a massacre that lasted 13 hours.
Chris Sisco, the father of Colton, one of the two small children whose bodies were found after the flooding, said in an interview that he was awakened by a phone call from the boy’s mother at 2:28 a.m. on Saturday. She alerted him to the heavy rain and potential danger. By the time he got out of bed, there was already water on the floor of his ground-floor apartment.
Natalie’s parents – Mr. Harnish and his wife, Courtney – also live in the home. Together, they gathered up their children and tried to flee the property in a truck.
They made it just past the driveway, Mr. Sisco said. “And then the water took us.”
He said he didn’t know what difference it would have made if the province had sent out its first emergency alert earlier in the morning.
“If my phone would have went off a half hour earlier, would we have got out? I don’t know. We might have,” he said.
“It’s a what if. I guess we’ll never know.”
Mr. Sisco described Colton as a child who loved to ride his bike and play video games with his older brother Alex, whom Colton enjoyed imitating and irritating. Colton was also very close with Natalie.
Recalling his daughter, Mr. Harnish said he was struck by how helpful she was in caring for her brother Christian, who has special needs and requires a lot of parental attention. “Natalie never once got jealous or spiteful,” he said. Christian survived the flood.
Mr. Harnish also recalled his daughter’s special relationship with their dog, Molly, who also died in the flood. “They were inseparable,” he said. “When Natalie went to bed, Molly went with her.”
Mr. Holland, the 52-year-old who died in the flood, was not with the Sisco and Harnish families. He was a father of two and a member of a heavy metal band called Hogtooth. “We, his family, are broken hearted,” his obituary said. “The family would like to profoundly thank all the members of the various search and rescue teams, the private citizens and the members of the band Hogtooth for their tireless efforts to find him.”
With a report from Dustin Cook