Find a better way to distribute emergency relief, MLAs tell P.E.I. government | Pages Da

The PEI government needs to find a more “streamlined” approach to delivering aid during the next emergency, according to PEI’s Standing Committee on Health and Social Development.

That committee — which is also responsible for overseeing public safety in the province — delivered 10 recommendations after a series of emergency meetings on the province’s response to post-tropical storm Fiona.

The province used the Canadian Red Cross to distribute $250 per household in relief money about a week after the storm devastated the island — much to the chagrin of hundreds of islanders who spent hour after hour, sometimes day after day in line trying to collect.

Committee chair, Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly, said there appeared to be “communication gaps” between the Red Cross and the province.

No hotel rooms for workers

“When the Red Cross came in and they said they couldn’t find hotel rooms for Red Cross employees to come over to hand out money, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.

Social Development and Housing Minister Matthew MacKay has already said there should be a review of the contract his department entered into with the Red Cross to see if the organization could “provide the service they said they can provide.”

Some islanders applying for $250 in provincial aid distributed through the Red Cross were asked to appear in person at reception centers to confirm their identity. Lines often formed early in the morning, with people waiting for hours and sometimes having to come back day after day. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

The committee’s recommendations are not binding on the government, but the province doesn’t seem to need a committee telling it to find a new way to distribute aid.

After the delays in delivering money through the Red Cross, the province announced on Halloween that a new round of inflation support payments would go out through the Canada Revenue Agency. The first time the province did it, it took four months for the funds to be delivered.

Already looking underground: minister

Something else the committee recommends: that the province “hold Maritime Electric accountable” to create a more resilient electricity system. As part of that, the committee wants the province to consider moving power lines underground.

Energy Secretary Steven Myers said it is already being considered.

“We’re looking at a few different organizations to help give us some guidance on what burying the infrastructure would look like, not just from a cost perspective but to make sure that’s the answer to our problem,” Myers said Thursday.

A power line is partially overturned and two utility trucks are seen using cranes to restore it.
Crews from Maritime Electric and other utilities worked for more than three weeks to restore power. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

In its presentation to the committee, Maritime Electric said 1,133 power poles were down as a result of Fiona. It took three weeks to restore power to some customers.

Myers said consideration has also been given to who will pay if cables are buried.

“If we ask Maritime Electric to bury all the lines and we don’t participate … everyone’s rates will go up because of that,” he said.

A partnership that uses federal or provincial funding to cover some of the costs, he said, would “save taxpayers a big rate hike.”

Give EMO power to require generators

The committee also recommended changes to the Emergency Measures Act to give the EMO the power to require service stations and owners of other critical infrastructure to have backup generators in place.

When Fiona met, there was no generator at Irving’s fuel tank farm in Charlottetown, the point from which all fuel on the island is distributed.

This meant that trucks could not be refueled to provide gas to fill pumps at stations that had their own backup generators and could pump gas.

Maritime Electric CEO Jason Roberts answers questions from a legislative committee about the company’s response to Post-Tropical Storm Fiona. (CBC)

There were long lines of customers at these stations trying to buy gas to fuel their own household generators, and some stations ran out of fuel.

The committee also recommended that priority lists maintained by various groups to guide restoration efforts be consistent “to ensure that our critical infrastructure and vulnerable populations are appropriately prioritized.”

It became clear during committee meetings that EMO and Maritime Electric kept their own priority lists. There was also criticism over the length of time it took to restore power to some long-term and community care facilities and senior housing.

Some other recommendations from the committee to improve future emergency response:

  • That the province is considering creating a register for vulnerable people to guide aid and restoration work.

  • That the EMO staff be increased, so that the authority can operate for a longer period of time.

  • That public communication be improved so that islanders can receive relevant information “quickly and efficiently.”

McNeilly said the committee is only “scratching the surface” in delving into the response to Fiona.

The Prime Minister has promised a review of some kind. There have been calls to make it a public inquiry, but the ruling PCs voted down a motion calling for one in the legislature earlier this month.

“We’re still in recovery,” said Darlene Compton, minister responsible for public safety and the province’s deputy premier.

“Until we’ve actually finished the whole process of emergency action regarding Fiona, then the government will look at whether there should be an investigation. And I certainly wouldn’t be against that.”

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