On Sept. 7, 2019, as Hurricane Dorian smashed-and-dashed its merry way through Halifax, I happened to be more than 1,000-km away in Vermont, basking in fall sunshine while attending a family wedding.
At one point—to take my mind off what I could still only imagine was happening at home—I took a stroll through a relatively new subdivision near the resort. I couldn’t help but note the developers—by choice or by local requirement—had buried all the neighbourhood’s power and utility wires.
Back home in Halifax, as I soon learned, Dorian had already ripped a good-sized limb from a tree across the street from our house, sending it hurtling down on an overhead power line with enough force to rip the power mast out from the side of our house. It took five days—and an electrician’s $1,000 house call—before our power could be restored.
We were lucky. At its height, the storm disrupted electrical service for 80 per cent of Nova Scotia Power’s 500,000 customers. By Sept. 15 (eight days after the storm) the private monopoly utility was still tweeting: “approx. 1,000 customers remaining without power and we’ve got 930 power line technicians and 262 forestry technicians working today to get us over the finish line.”
We don’t know—won’t know for some time—just how much this latest storm cost individuals, businesses, governments. We do know for surer-than-certainty it won’t be the last. During the whole of the 20th century, only eight officially named storms crossed over Nova Scotia. In the first two decades of the 21st century, there have been four, including 2003’s Hurricane Juan, “the most damaging storm in [Halifax’s] modern history,” according to Environment Canada.
Five months later, White Juan, an officially un-named winter hurricane disguised as a blizzard became “one of the most explosive weather bombs ever, even more powerful than its namesake Hurricane Juan,” dumping more snow on the city in a single day than had fallen in any city of comparable size ever and prompted an unprecedented “state of emergency” with overnight curfews that shut the city down for four days. Hurricane Dorian? Well, let’s just say it’s no longer reasonable to describe it—as many did Hurricane Juan— as the storm of the century.
So we know there will probably be more and worse storms ahead. We know, or should know, we must dramatically change our ways if we are to slow down the accelerating pace of climate change. And we know, or should know, we must find ways to reduce the impact of those storms we know will cause us grief. Burying our electrical and utility wires? Should be a no-brainer.
Since the 1960s, in fact, the Canadian Federation of Mayors and Municipalities has supposedly promoted underground wiring “not only in new subdivisions, but also in downtown areas and older residential neighborhoods, where the Federation urges the gradual burying of existing overhead systems.”
Makes sense. According to a recent study by the Florida Public Service Commission, 40 per cent of its customers served by underground wiring suffered “significantly” fewer outages and were without power for shorter periods of time per outage than their fellow overheaded customers.
OK. So, what’s actually happening on and under the ground in Halifax?
During negotiations last year over how high a high-rise could be, the city and the developer traded proposals seemingly designed to get around a municipal requirement to bury the cables. According to city staff, Nova Scotia Power considered “undergrounding overhead wires” for the development “problematic” and wasn’t keen to speed up its “current planning” to make that happen.
It now seems unlikely the developer will bury the wiring. Instead, we’ll wait until after the next storm, and the next, and probably the last to do what we should have done years ago.