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Canada Dorian’s impact: Maritimers complain about cellphone service failure

Members of the 4 Engineer Support Regiment from CFB Gagetown move a slab of sidewalk as they assist in the cleanup in Halifax, on Sept. 9, 2019.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he’s heard from residents in the Maritimes livid about losing cellphone service after post-tropical storm Dorian swept through the region, causing widespread power outages and property damage.

Speaking on Tuesday from a slightly damaged government wharf in Herring Cove, N.S., Mr. Goodale pledged financial support through disaster-assistance programs, but he also made a point of urging fed-up cellphone users to take action, saying he’s heard about their frustration “loud and clear.”

“For those who have been affected by what they consider to be faulty or deficient telephone services, they … should make their concerns known to the … regulatory authority,” Mr. Goodale said, referring to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

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“They need to know if customers believe the response to the emergency was not at the level they have a right to expect. … Make sure you make that concern known to the CRTC.”

Mr. Goodale said cellphones have become essential tools for Canadians. “It’s not just a frill that’s nice to have,” he said, adding that infrastructure across the country must be built to withstand the intense weather and “abnormal circumstances” caused by climate change.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan visit Herring Cove to meet with residents and talk about federal help as Nova Scotia recovers from post-tropical storm Dorian. Dorian, a hurricane-strength post-tropical storm, slammed into the region on the weekend. The Canadian Press

Many Nova Scotia residents have come forward to complain about spotty cell service in the aftermath of the storm, with some saying they were left with no way to call for help or seek critical information.

Various wireless providers have confirmed they dispatched crews to repair damaged cell towers, but company officials have also reminded users that most cellphone towers have limited backup electricity, leaving them vulnerable to failure during extended power outages.

Telus issued a statement that it has been working around the clock with its infrastructure partner to restore service to its customers and won’t charge people for some fees owing to the storm.

“We apologize for the inconvenience and thank our customers for their patience and understanding,” Steve Beisswanger, a Telus spokesman, said in an e-mail.

“To support our customers during this challenging time we are pro-actively waiving all domestic voice, text and data overage fees incurred between Saturday, Sept. 7 and Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, for customers in affected areas.”

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Dorian pulled down power lines across the region. In Nova Scotia, outages were reported from one end of the province to the other, leaving more than 400,000 Nova Scotia Power customers – 80 per cent of the homes and businesses in the province – in the dark at the height of the storm.

If nothing else, the wave of complaints confirms how reliant people have become on their smartphones and fibre-optic telecommunications gear that can also fail when the lights go out and backup batteries die.

“In 2019, internet and cellphone services are an essential service,” provincial NDP business critic Claudia Chender said in a statement.

“People should be able to expect that in the event of outages, the companies that provide these services will deliver detailed and timely reports on what the impacts are and what restoration work is under way.”

Ms. Chender said the province’s Liberal government should require telecom companies to advise when service will be restored, the same way electric utilities are required to do.

Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a brief stop at the military’s Willow Park Armoury in Halifax, where he met with Mr. Goodale, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, military officials and Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.

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There was no official photo-op for the Prime Minister, who is expected to announce the official start of the federal election campaign on Wednesday. Mr. Trudeau steered clear of politics Tuesday, remarking in a brief statement that his government has been monitoring the storm’s impact.

“I know crews have been working around the clock to restore power throughout Nova Scotia, and there’s a lot more work to do, and the federal government is here to support in any way we can,” he told reporters assembled outside the armoury.

Mr. Goodale, Mr. Sajjan and federal Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan later headed to Herring Cove, a tiny coastal community south of Halifax close to where Dorian made landfall on Saturday night.

As the storm approached the coastline, it lashed the area with driving rain and gusts reaching almost 150 kilometres an hour – approaching the power of a Category 2 hurricane.

There were no reports of injuries, but roofs were torn off and trees were snapped like twigs, pulling down power lines across a wide swath of the Maritimes.

At one point, more than 500,000 electricity consumers in the region were without power, including 75 per cent in Prince Edward Island and 20 per cent in New Brunswick.

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As Day 3 of the recovery effort drew to a close, about 16,000 customers were waiting for reconnection in PEI, and about 1,000 in New Brunswick. However, more than 88,000 Nova Scotia Power customers were still without electricity on Tuesday evening, and the company said it would be Thursday before everyone was reconnected.

The company said it has found about 3,700 trees on power lines that stretch across 32,000 kilometres, and repairs are being made to 300 broken or leaning utility poles. As well, about 4,500 outages across Nova Scotia represent individual customers, which means one repair will bring electricity back to only one customer.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the repair teams face a big challenge.

“I think it’s fair [to say] that all Nova Scotians have not seen a weather event like this for quite some time,” he said.

“The physical infrastructure damage from one end of the province to the other is unprecedented. Everyone is working to best ability to restore that power as quickly as possible, to restore telecommunications as quickly possible.”

Nova Scotia Power chief executive Karen Hutt said she hoped the number of customers still without power would be cut in half by Wednesday.

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A Canadian Forces spokesman said troops have accomplished tasks in the greater Halifax area and will now extend their mission.

Captain Guillaume Lafrance, chief of staff, Joint Task Force Atlantic, said the 380 assigned troops will be joined by 70 reservists from Nova Scotia, bringing the total number of troops to 450. “Our next objective is … to help out the entirety of the province,” he said.

Light armoured vehicles were spotted patrolling the streets as soldiers with chainsaws were ready to clear the streets of fallen trees. However, they were prevented from removing some trees because limbs were still tangled in power lines, which meant an electrician was needed to get the job done.

Mr. Sajjan said the soldiers aren’t trained to repair downed power lines, which means their safety would be put at risk without the help of a trained professional.

In Halifax, experts were brought in to see how a crane that toppled at the height of the storm could be taken down safely.

Many schools across Nova Scotia and PEI were closed on Monday and Tuesday, and emergency officials have been urging people to stay home for their own safety and to give cleanup crews the room they need to work. Public schools in Nova Scotia were to reopen on Wednesday.

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