What Can You Do When a Hurricane Is Coming? - PART 1

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Prepared by Peter Bowyer, November 14, 2003

In the weeks following Hurricane Juan, I've been asked by many people about the things that they should do when a hurricane is approaching. One person put it quite simply: "I can't stop the wind, I can't stop the water, and I can't stop trees from falling down... so what can I do?"

Our hurricane-savvy neighbours to the south have a great little slogan that puts things in perspective: "Run from water! Hide from wind!" What this saying teaches is that it's possible to reduce the impacts that a hurricane can have on you if you know your vulnerability. Once you have assessed your vulnerability, you can take appropriate actions, including having a basic plan of preparedness.

A hurricane preparedness plan includes three basic things that are important in the threat of any severe weather event, and not just for hurricanes:

  1. Maintaining a disaster or emergency supply kit;
  2. Securing your home and property;
  3. Having a safe place to go in the event of evacuation or prolonged utility outage.

There are some excellent examples of pre-emptive actions that were taken in the hours before Hurricane Juan made landfall; these actions saved lives and property. How many lives and how much property we'll never know. The striking thing about many of these examples is how simple and matter-of-fact they were.

This week I would like to highlight the actions taken at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax.

Point Pleasant Park

With 40 percent of Halifax tree-covered, it's little wonder that MacLeans magazine called it Canada's largest "urban forest," in an article on October 27. In particular, Point Pleasant Park, once known as Halifax's jewel, boasts between 80,000 and 100,000 trees. At least, that was true until Hurricane Juan.

On September 28, Doug Brown, Senior Park Officer for Point Pleasant, and Art Sampson, Park Supervisor, knew that Hurricane Juan was going to be a big problem. Given their experience with wind storms in the past, as well as memories of Hurricanes Hortense (1996) and Blanche (1975), they decided to close the park early. After vetting their decision through higher management, Point Pleasant Park was closed to the general public at about 6:00 pm.

As someone with considerable experience making decisions that are routinely open to immediate public scrutiny, I understand the degree of anguish that Mr. Brown and Mr. Sampson felt in trying to decide whether a park closure was justified. If the storm missed or if it was not that intense, criticism would mount quickly and second-guessing would be inevitable. You have to understand that the pressure on them was intense. Hundreds of hurricane-onlookers wanted to get as close as possible to the shore, and Point Pleasant Park provided the perfect vantage. Closing the park would be a very unpopular decision. Despite the pressure, these two men stuck to their convictions and closed the park. Considerable effort by Park Patrol Officers, was spent for the remainder of the evening to evacuate the park and keep it clear of people who were trying to sneak in.

Point Pleasant Park. Photo: Len Wagg
Point Pleasant Park. Photo: Len Wagg

Point Pleasant Park. Photo: Len Wagg
Point Pleasant Park. Photo: Len Wagg

"Before and after" high definition photo of tree damage at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Photo: HDI Inc. for Environment Canada
"Before and after" high definition photo of tree damage at Point Pleasant Park in Halifax. Photo: HDI Inc. for Environment Canada

In less than 9 hours after the gates were closed, some 60,000 to 75,000 trees came down in the combination of high winds and storm surge with Hurricane Juan. When morning came, the sunrise revealed the extent of the disaster: about 90 percent of the mature tree growth in the park either was gone or seriously impacted. Board walks and grassy areas (up to 30 feet in some areas) had been replaced with beach stone from the surge.

Many lives were saved by keeping people away from the trees which would eventually topple: candidly, perhaps dozens. At the Hurricane Centre, we applaud the foresight and action of Mr. Brown and Mr. Sampson. It's true that you can't stop the wind from blowing or the trees from falling down, but you can keep people out of harm's way. Sometimes the best course of action is simply to say, "Closed for business."

Well done Mr. Brown, Mr. Sampson and the rest of the staff at Point Pleasant Park!

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank George Parkes of the Atlantic Storm Prediction Centre for bringing to our attention the effective mitigative actions taken at Point Pleasant Park.

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