Canada’s emergency alert system does not work well enough in the event of a disaster, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said Friday.
Speaking to reporters at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Bali, Indonesia, Blair acknowledged that news alerts sent ahead of a sudden and severe storm that recently hit southern Ontario and the Quebec were not as helpful as they could have been.
He didn’t mince words when asked if the early warning system was working as well as it might have before the storm.
“The very simple and straightforward answer is no. I think there needs to be improvements,” Blair said.
He said alerts should be sent earlier, should offer more and better information about what recipients should do, and should be more consistent in terms of who is receiving them.
Residents criticized the system
The May 21 storm and its aftermath killed 11 people in Ontario. Many residents of the Ottawa area are still without power.
Some residents criticized the alert system, saying they had not received a warning when they felt they should have. Alerts were sent to cell phones and were also broadcast on TV and radio in some areas. This was the first intrusive alert issued for an extreme thunderstorm warning.
Blair acknowledged the criticism, calling the early warning system “inconsistently used”.
He said one of the most important things he learned at the conference is that there is data to suggest that a strong early warning system for natural disasters can reduce casualties and damage from 30% on average.
He said the federal government will work with the provinces and territories and Environment Canada to make changes to the system.
“It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” he said.
“Clearly, I think the tragic loss of life and damage that has occurred in Ontario and Quebec over the past few days demonstrates that there is still work to be done, and we are determined to do it.”
Federal government offers to help Ontario and Quebec
Blair’s remarks come as officials warn of a risk of flooding in Gatineau, Quebec. Blair said he has been briefed on the situation and that federal government officials are communicating with their provincial counterparts.
He said the federal government has offered assistance to help Ontario recover from the storm, but the province has yet to accept the offer.
“We have offered assistance as needed, but have been advised, by the province, that the current response to storm damage over the past two days is within their ability to manage,” Blair said.
“We are working closely with the provinces and local authorities, and we have assured them that if they need our help, we will be there to help them.”
He said the federal government is also ready to step up its financial assistance through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) if requested by Ontario and Quebec.
But in an interview aired Saturday on CBC The House, Blair said the program is getting more expensive.
Of more than $9 billion in estimated damage caused by flooding in British Columbia last year, Blair said, the federal government covered about $5 billion.
“One of the issues we’re having in the federal government is disaster financial assistance arrangements, and we’re seeing the cost of that go up quite significantly,” Blair told host Chris Hall.
“So earlier this year I set up a panel of experts to start looking at this arrangement – not to reduce the amount of money we’re spending, but to start spending it smarter and start invest in prevention, mitigation and adaptation, so that we can reduce the cost of damage caused.”
Blair added that the government could do more to provide useful disaster response information to Canadians.
“In May, we had Emergency Preparedness Week, and we made an effort to get information out into our communities. And there’s actually been quite a strong public turnout this year for better emergency preparedness, developing emergency preparedness kits,” he said.
“When people get this information and know what to do, then they can be safer and significantly reduce casualties and damage from these events.”