Leaders at multiple levels of government are raising concerns about the lack of cellular coverage in the West Hants area of Nova Scotia, where four people were swept away in a flash flood during this past weekend’s catastrophic rainfall.
Abraham Zebian, the mayor of the municipality of West Hants, said he has repeatedly 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 particularly the unavailability of the 911 system, but has seen no action for the past two years.
“The area where the individuals were swept away, there is almost no service at all,” he told The Globe and Mail. “You may have service in a spot you’re standing, you move 30 centimetres and there’s no service, period.”
Mr. Blois, a Liberal, said he plans to discuss the issue at a meeting scheduled Thursday in West Hants with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Emergency services are increasingly relying on cellphones to alert people to danger. Governments and regulators need to address connectivity dead zones across the country, he said.
“We’re starting to see the impacts of major weather events because of climate change and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to be identifying ways in which we can strengthen telecommunication and internet, because that is the way in which we notify people in today’s context,” Mr. Blois said.
On Wednesday, teams worked to drain 52 acres of flooded hayfield in the West Hants community of Brooklyn, 65 kilometres northwest of Halifax. They were searching for a missing youth who was swept away during extreme flooding early Saturday morning. The bodies of two children and a 52-year-old man were recovered earlier this week.
Search and rescue teams continued to comb riverbanks, while helicopters scanned overhead and fire crews paddled the flooded landscape, according to Mark Phillips, chief administrative officer for West Hants.
“It’s such a large scale of water,” he said. “It’s a process of elimination because the fields are adjacent to where the individuals were lost.”
Torrential rain started Friday evening and continued into Saturday, dumping up to 250 millimetres of precipitation in parts of the province, destroying bridges, causing widespread damage to homes and washing out at least 50 roads and a chunk of a CN Railway.
During the deluge, the province issued two emergency alerts via cellphone for West Hants: one at 3:06 a.m. Saturday asking people to shelter in place or call 911 if they couldn’t, and one at 3:41 a.m., ordering an evacuation. The evacuation alert was updated at 4:33 a.m.
Police have said the people swept up in the flood were in the midst of fleeing their homes in vehicles around 3 a.m., when a storm surge pushed them off a road and into a hayfield that suddenly flooded with about 10 feet of water.
The Globe has been unable to determine whether the alerts reached the victims of the flash flood, or what role, if any, those alerts may have played in their decision to flee.
Mr. Zebian said he has been told some residents didn’t receive alerts. “It’s hard to know who received the 911 alert and who didn’t. There are reports that some received, some didn’t receive,” he said. He added that he is awaiting a response from Mr. Houston on the issue, which he raised again this week.
John Lohr, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Emergency Measures, said spotty cellular service in the province needs to be addressed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The regulator is responsible for the National Public Alerting System, a federal, provincial and territorial system that enables emergency management organizations across Canada to warn the public about imminent or possible dangers such as floods, tornados, hazardous materials, fires and other disasters.
“It’s a major area of frustration for the people in the province,” Mr. Lohr said.
The public alert system works across platforms, allowing officials to send warnings via TV, radio and cellphones. The RCMP were criticized for not using the alert system in April, 2020, to warn residents in Portapique, N.S., about a gunman who killed 22 people in a massacre that lasted 13 hours.
The CRTC, which reports to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
On Wednesday, the province lifted a state of emergency and announced that it would be providing up to $200,000 in financial assistance to each household, small business and non-profit dealing with uninsurable losses after sustaining damage during the weekend’s severe flooding.