Toronto wasn’t ready for January’s blizzard — and still isn’t, says city report

The 55 centimeters of snow that fell over 15 hours during January’s unprecedented storm closed schools, shuttered vaccine clinics, stranded transit vehicles and made some uncleared roads and sidewalks impassible for days or weeks.

A new report by city staff says Toronto was unprepared for such an extreme weather event driven by climate change — and still is.

That report, headed to Toronto’s infrastructure and environment committee, acknowledges climate change continues to make “unusual” weather events like January’s more common and says that the city’s response needs to become more predictable.

“None of the existing council-approved service levels accounts for extreme weather events, and therefore the levels do not set a feasible response time for a storm of the magnitude experienced in January,” according to the report, which pegs the cost of the cleanup of the January storm at more than $17 million.

City staff now say the city needs an “extreme winter weather response plan.” If council votes to create such a plan, it could be ready in the first quarter of 2023.

The lack of a clear operations plan for major storms like January’s “left a gap in expectations and created uncertainty amongst residents regarding when the snow clearing would be completed, leaving many people anxious and frustrated,” the report said.

While staff define “heavy” snowfall as one centimeter per hour, the January storm saw a record-setting snowfall of five centimeters per hour, according to the report. That was more than the total snowfall in January, February and March 2021 combined, making it “one of the top 10 single largest snowfall events ever recorded in Toronto.”

The previous significant snowfall was in January 1999, staff said, when 38 centimeters was recorded on a single day and a total 118.4 centimeters accumulated over two weeks, leading to then-major Mel Lastman calling in Canadian soldiers to help remove the snow.

This February, council requested a review of current snow clearing operations amid ongoing complaints from residents and businesses about snow that was slow to be cleared.

Waiting until early 2023 to approve an extreme weather plan is too long, said Coun. Josh Matlow, whose Toronto-St. Paul’s ward had the highest volume of service requests from January’s storm and who has previously advocated for improved citywide snow clearing.

Matlow said he plans to request that the plan return to council in July, before the summer break, saying he worries a report in the first quarter of 2023 could come as late as March. That would mean a plan may not be in place in time to be useful next winter.

“It wasn’t fair to residents who expect that snow clearing should be a basic part of what they pay taxes for to a Canadian city,” he said of the cleanup from January’s storm.

Between Jan. 17 and Feb. 16, staff reported that crews removed 179,442 tonnes from 3,471 kilometers of roadway, consisting of nearly 60,000 truckloads and costing the city $17.6 million — or 20 per cent of their approved $89.2-million winter maintenance budget.

Staff said that amount of snow meant that it could not simply be pushed onto boulevards. Clearing was also made more difficult by how fast the snow fell and freezing temperatures that persisted for two weeks. This contributed to several other problems like mechanical breakdowns and staff shortages, the report said.

Crews also had to be pulled away to help dig out more than 500 TTC buses, emergency services stations and hospitals — work they don’t need to do during a typical snowstorm, staff said.

To develop an emergency plan, city staff said they would review other cities’ snow removal plans and consult with industry experts to determine “how to smoothly transition contractors from typical storms to extreme storms.”

An emergency plan would also focus on improved communications with the public and local councillors’ offices about snow removal efforts, the report said.

There are minimum maintenance standards for roads set out by the province. The city has additional standards for bicycle lanes and other infrastructure.

In addition to that, the city also categorizes winter storms based on snow accumulation.

First, standards: on residential roads, the city does not start plowing until at least 8 cm of snow has piled up (enough to bury a credit card, the city’s public campaign points out). Once the snow stops, plowing on those streets is expected to be completed within 14 to 16 hours.

The standard for completing plowing after a storm of more than 25 centimeters is upwards of 24 to 36 hours.

But those minimums become moot when the city declares a significant weather event like it did in January — which suspends the legal standards for clearing.

Secondly, categories: there are currently four types of winter storms determined by the city based on how much snow accumulates. The most severe, Type 4, is a storm with more than 25 cm of snow.

Under a new emergency plan, staff proposing modifying Type 4 to be specifically 25 to 35 cm of accumulation and adding two categories for storms of more than 50 cm.

During a briefing Tuesday, staff told reporters the new categories would help manage public expectations about snow clearing with more severe storms, but it would also see city staff adjust their response to snowfall more efficiently depending on the storm. That will partly be helped by new contracts signed for next winter that could make clearing more efficient and would be spelled out in the new plan, staff said

As far as budgeting for more severe storms, Barbara Gray, general manager for transportation services, said her department typically doesn’t spend its entire winter maintenance budget and that the current budget does account for significant weather events. Any unspent funds go back into the city’s operating reserves.

January’s storm led to a significant public response from people whose sidewalks and roads took weeks to be cleared.

Staff say that the city’s 311 hotline handled 62,000 calls and created more than 21,000 snow and ice-related service requests, causing 1,900 hours of additional work costing an additional $120,000. Despite this, service levels dropped by 13 per cent, the staff report said. Staff said they are looking at ways to activate a dedicated hotline during major storm events.

“I have made it clear to Transportation Services that I want regular updates on the work underway to improve our extreme winter weather preparedness and response,” Tory said in a statement. “This includes the development of an Extreme Winter Weather Response Plan, undertaking an internal review of snow removal operations, working with contractors to expand our service delivery, and establishing a dedicated snow-related 311 hotline that will give the City the ability to quickly scale up 311 capacity when needed.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags


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