Skip to main content

Workers repair power lines on Bayview Ave. in Toronto, Ontario, Monday December 23, 2013 following the weekend ice storm which knocked out power to thousands of homes.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

It is natural to blame authorities in a time of crisis. The ice storm, which hit Toronto at the worst possible time – just before Christmas – left thousands in the cold and dark for days, their holiday plans often disrupted or ruined. Many say the official response was slow and inept.

Why, they demand, didn't Toronto Hydro get the power back on faster? Why didn't Mayor Rob Ford declare a state of emergency?

Their frustration is understandable, but their anger is misplaced. This was a complex weather event – the biggest, says Toronto Hydro, in its history. Clearing all those shattered trees and fallen branches takes time. So does restoring a shattered power grid.

Hydro employees have been working around the clock ever since the storm hit and knocked out electricity to hundreds of thousands of residents. Many workers gave up their holidays to get the job done. Extra crews from far and wide were called in to help.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the provincial government would give Toronto all available resources regardless of whether a state of emergency were declared. Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines said: "The power could not have come on any faster as a result of a city-wide state of emergency."

The chair of the city's public works committee, Denzil Minnan-Wong, was another who said there was no need to declare an emergency. He is a sometime critic of the mayor and a possible rival in next year's election campaign, but he did not see fit to criticize this decision.

One reason for declaring an emergency is that it can speed the release of government funds for disaster relief. In this case, though, Toronto is planning to apply for help from Ontario's disaster relief fund and, according to the city, there is no requirement for a municipality to have declared an emergency in order to qualify. Mr. Ford has asked for a special meeting of city council on Jan. 10 to make the request.

The idea that Mr. Ford held back for political reasons is just speculation. His critics say that, under the new rules that took effect when city council stripped him of many of his powers, managing the emergency would have fallen to Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, taking the mayor out of the limelight.

Guessing at the mayor's motives at a time such as this is not very helpful. We must stick with what we know, and what we know is that the people in charge say that declaring an emergency would not have made a practical difference to the management of the crisis. As Mr. Ford put it in his Sunday briefing: "It would not have sped things up, it would not have given us more funding."

Some city councillors said he should have declared an emergency anyway, just to show the city was taking the crisis seriously. If this was not an emergency, they said, what is? But a purely symbolic declaration would have been pointless.

Despite all the discomfort, delays and frustration, the city is finally emerging from the ice-storm crisis. Warming centres are starting to close. Most Hydro customers have their power back. Above all, most people came through it safely. Emergency-services officials say that, remarkably, there were no fatalities in the city from falling branches, electrocution or carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mr. Ford hit the right note on Sunday when he praised residents for their patience and city workers for their dedication. "We're doing very, very well in the situation that was presented to us eight days ago," he said.

That is not to say the city's response was flawless. Many streets remained blocked by fallen branches for days, without even a sign out to warn people to watch for the obstruction. It is not clear whether authorities did enough to check in on vulnerable residents such as isolated seniors. Officials promise to do a postmortem of their response and to learn lessons for the future.

On the evidence so far, though, Toronto is coping with this nasty event reasonably well. Lashing out at city hall doesn't make the coping any easier.

Marcus Gee is The Globe's Toronto City Hall columnist.