Snowstorm from January shows Toronto needs an ‘extreme weather’ plan: report

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

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

This report, led by the Toronto Infrastructure and Environment Committee, recognizes that climate change continues to make “unusual” weather events like January more common, and says the city’s response needs to be more predictable.

“None of the existing council-approved service levels take into account 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 fixes the cost of clearing the January storm at more than 17 million dollars.

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

The lack of a clear operation plan for major storms like January “left a gap in expectations and created uncertainty among residents as to when the snow removal would be completed, leaving many people anxious and frustrated,” the report said.

While staff define “heavy” snowfall as one centimeter per hour, the storm in January saw a record-breaking 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 10 largest single snowfall events ever recorded in Toronto.”

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

In February, the municipality 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, Coun said. Josh Matlow, whose Toronto-St. Paul’s department had the highest number of service requests since the January storm, and which has previously advocated for improved snow removal in the city.

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

“It was not fair to residents who expect snow removal to be a fundamental part of what they pay taxes to a Canadian city,” he said of the cleanup from the January storm.

Between January 17 and February 16, staff reported that crews removed 179,442 tons from the 3,471-kilometer roadway, consisting of nearly 60,000 trucks and cost the city $ 17.6 million – or 20 percent of their approved $ 89.2 million winter maintenance budget.

Staff said the amount of snow meant it could not just be pushed out onto boulevards. Clearing was also hampered by how fast the snow fell and freezing temperatures that lasted for two weeks. This contributed to several other problems such as mechanical breakdowns and staff shortages, the report said.

Crews also had to be towed away to help dig out more than 500 TTC buses, emergency stations and hospitals – work they do not have to perform 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 transfer contractors from typical storms to extreme storms.”

An emergency plan will also focus on improved communication with the public and local councilors’ offices on snow removal efforts, the report said.

There are minimum maintenance standards for roadways set by the province. The city has additional standards for bike paths and other infrastructure.

Besides 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 accumulated (enough to bury a credit card, the city’s public campaign points out). When the snow stops, plowing on these streets is expected to be completed within 14 to 16 hours.

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

But these minimum requirements become controversial when the city declares a significant weather event, as it did in January – which suspends the legal standards for clearing.

Second categories: there are currently four types of winter storms, which are 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 propose to change Type 4 to specifically be 25 to 35 cm accumulation and add two categories for storms of more than 50 cm.

During a briefing Tuesday, staff told reporters that the new categories would help control public expectations of snow removal with more severe storms, but it would also see city staff adjust their response to snowfall more effectively depending on the storm. It will be helped in part by new contracts signed for next winter that could make clearing more efficient and will be described in the new plan, staff said

Regarding budgeting for more severe storms, Barbara Gray, general manager of transportation services, said her department typically does not spend its entire winter maintenance budget and that the current budget takes into account significant weather events. Any unused funds go back to the city’s operating reserves.

January’s storm led to a significant public reaction from people whose sidewalks and roads took weeks to clear.

Staff say 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 extra work that cost an additional $ 120,000. Despite this, the service level fell by 13 percent, the staff report states. 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 ongoing work 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, an internal review of snow removal operations, collaboration with contractors to expand our service delivery and the establishment of a dedicated snow-related 311 hotline that will allow the city to quickly scale up to 311 capacity when it is necessary.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering City Hall and municipal politics for Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpgs


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these statements.

Leave a Comment