Lessons from a New Brunswick Flood
Jul 15, 2008

New Brunswick is a relatively small jurisdiction, the third smallest in Canada, with a population of just 750,000. The lead provincial agency for emergency management is the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (NB-EMO), with a permanent staff of nine people. On reflection, the province performed quite well during this year’s flood – far better than during a similar flood in 2005. We examine some of the interesting reasons why, and explain how the province is incorporating recent lessons learned to improve its emergency program for the future..

Like every other jurisdiction in North America, New Brunswick is now six years into the ongoing transformation in emergency management that began in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on Washington and New York. New Brunswick today is recognized nationally as a leader in emergency management, particularly in two specific areas of public emergency policy: critical infra­structure protection; and the use of information technology for security. This is the result of several key government decisions.

In 2000, the provincial government had ­integrated most programs related to public safety and security within a new department of Public Safety; this brought a strong focus to an area that had been decimated by program cuts during the 80s and 90s. Following the 2001 attacks, new government investments strengthened its capacity to assess threats and respond more effectively to incidents. Much of the investment was in new systems for information management, decision support and internet-based communications, along with the establish­ment of a Provincial Security Program, a Provincial Hazardous Materials Response Program, enhancements to Criminal Intelligence Service – New Brunswick, and a Critical Infrastructure Program.

In 2003, responsibilities within Public Safety were re-aligned to strengthen the role of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (NB-EMO) as the provincial lead agency for consequence management, while establishing a new provincial office, the New Brunswick Security and Emergency Directorate (NB-SED), to manage the security and critical infrastructure programs. Co-located, these two agencies share staff and infrastructure. They have worked together over the past five years to develop an integrated, “whole of government” approach to managing security events and emergencies, as reflected in the Provincial Incident Management System (IMS). Decisions are taken together and have enabled the province to assess threats and manage events better across jurisdictional mandates and levels of government.

Risk Assessment
In 2005, New Brunswick experienced a major flood which was more severe than predicted. It had been 11 years since the previous flood, and people were not sufficiently sensitized to a possible recurrence. Following the event, many complained that they had been surprised, suggesting government should have done more to prepare the public. In fact, government had been issuing flood warnings in the week prior to the 2005 event, but most failed to act, even when faced with an imminent threat. The 2005 experience identified two key concerns – a lack of preparedness funding, and weak coordination between local and provincial authorities – as significant obstacles to an effective and consistent response across jurisdictional boundaries. These issues resulted in variable levels of service, inconsistent messaging, public confusion, and general dissatisfaction with government efforts. The problems were compounded by a three-month delay in the announcement of government financial assistance, which gave the appearance that authorities had done little to help during the flood and were only doing so, grudgingly, after the fact.

NB-EMO’s principal advice to government this time around, was to make decisions early to provide a positive effect during the impact phase. Heeding this advice, Public Safety was directed to lean well forward – with a clear understand­ing that the provincial ­gov­ernment would help with both ­private and public response and recovery costs.

May 2008 - Flooded Church in Sheffield, New Brunswick.

The context of the 2008 event was a near record snow pack (twice normal) throughout the St John River Basin. Snow came early and stayed late. Based on past events with similar snow pack, officials expected flooding to approximate 2005 levels through­out the lower half of the basin, even without significant rainfall. This forecast was communicated to the media and the public well in advance.  

Due to the complexity of the impending operation and the ­significant threat to government operations and essential services, NB-SED undertook to manage an all-hazard intelligence (assessment) process for NB-EMO. This proved to be vital due to the sheer volume of information coming into the Joint Emergency Operations Centre. The Assessment Unit sifted multiple sources for trends and significant information, and provided a consolidated daily event summary and intelligence assessment forecast five days ahead. The assessment process included a detailed examination of threats to public safety and security as well as government operations, direct and indirect threats to critical infrastructure, as well as emerging trends and public attitudes.

Considering New Brunswick’s integrated approach to emergency management, critical infrastructure and security, NB-EMO and NB-SED assessed continuity and other risks (including strategic considerations) to government , lifeline services, people, property and the environment. This forecasting enabled officials to communicate societal risks, and target policy decisions regarding response and recovery issues, well in advance of the event.

Still-fresh memories of 2005 prompted provincial and local officials, and the public, to prepare for flooding many weeks in advance of the event. Responders in Fredericton and rural communities knocked on every door, assessed special needs and made contingency plans down to individual homes and farms. Provincial officials ran a daily information campaign that included strategic messages from the Public Safety Minister and Premier, supported by a continuous flow of emergency public information that was coordinated across federal, provincial, local and private sector domains. Officials emphasized that there would be a flood, even without rain, and that a significant rainfall could produce a flood event of historic proportions. This is in fact what happened.

Elsewhere, local authorities and responders scaled up in advance, implementing their respective plans for emergency services, evacuations, reception centres, emergency social services, and especially public communications. The Joint Emergency Operations Centre was activated in Fredericton, as were three District Opera­tions Centres to support the smaller and rural communities. Municipalities in Edmundston, Fredericton, Oromocto, Grand Bay-Westfield and Saint John activated their emergency operations centres. To support rural communities near Fredericton, the Oromocto Fire Department established an Integrated Command Post, which coordinated support from local, provincial and federal agencies, including the Departments of National Defence and Fisheries and Oceans.

The Joint Emergency Operations Centre (JEOC ) coordinated activities, information, and decisions along functional lines such as Executive, Management, Assess­ment (Intelligence), Operations, Planning and Com­munications. Consequently, we shared situational awareness, achieved ­consensus on issues and had good synchronization among the partners, particularly in public information. When asked by the Commander Joint Task Force Atlantic, what was the province’s centre of gravity, the Director NB-EMO answered, “Public confidence, and our main effort was information ­operations.”

Farmlands in the Maugerville area (just east of Fredericton) suffered severe flooding.

With these early decisions in place, the Premier was able to announce, on May 5th, just five days after the peak, a comprehensive recovery program, including details of a new disaster financial assistance program. Advance payments were offered and the first cheques reached clients 10 days later. Early decisions enabled concurrent response and recovery planning and assistance payments occurred in the impact phase, rather than six months after the fact, as happened in 2005.

Importantly, there were no deaths or serious injuries. This was due in large part to effective early warning and advice and well-coordinated rescue operations conducted by the Oromocto Incident Com­mand Post, largely with federal resources.

Canadian Forces members and industry volunteers joined forces during rescue operations in Burton, New Brunswick.

The need for rescue of people and livestock was anticipated well in advance, and 60 persons and 140 cattle were rescued over a 24-hour period. The north-west part of the province did not fare quite so well. The region was hit severely by a two-metre flash flood, the result of a 100mm rainfall in a 24 hour period. Flooding in that area came as a surprise to many, despite flood warnings, as there had been no previous history of such an event. People there were traumatized, but fortunately, no one was injured. Recognizing the potential loss of public confidence, the Premier, Ministers and provincial officials made the north-west their main effort in the days following and the situation quickly stabilized.

Ernest MacGillivray is the Director of Emergency Measures Organization in the NB Department of Public Safety. He is a former chair of the Canadian Council of Emergency Management Organizations, former Co-Chair of the National Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management and is current Canadian Co-Chair of the International Emergency Management Group.
© FrontLine Security 2008