Are Canadian cities prepared for snow storms like Buffalo's?

Are Canadian cities prepared for snow storms like Buffalo's?

An epic snowfall that has buried Buffalo and much of upstate New York, as well as some areas of southern Ontario, is one heck of a way to remind us that winter has arrived.

Massive mounds of snow have blanketed the region, prompting a state of emergency, closing city streets and being linked to several deaths in the area. With more layers expected to fall, it is a not-so-gentle reminder that Canadian cities will soon be hit by a winter wallop — if they haven’t been already.

Southern Ontario cities such as Barrie and Waterloo have been buried by an icy blast in recent days, and Toronto has been warned to expect some snowfall of its own. A special weather statement was issued for the Niagara Region, warning of wind gusts up to 90 km/hr and heavy snowfall. Other regions received snow squall warnings.

Worrying about snow in mid-November is a bit like fussing about traffic on your way home from work: It’s going to come, there’s no getting around it. The only question is how you’re going to handle it.

What Buffalo and most of the rest of upstate New York was hit with this week, however, was beyond the norm.

More than six feet of snow fell in a 24-hour period, burying homes and leaving travellers stranded. Even emergency vehicles were abandoned in the snow drifts. As much as three more feet were anticipated on Wednesday.

The glut of snow in the area has been attributed to the lake effect, when the warmth of lake water in the area mixes with cold air and sharp winds to create excess condensation.

“The fact that it got so cold earlier in the year exaggerates the problem with a really warm lake, and that’s why we are seeing such intense events,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, director of the University of Waterloo’s Climate Change Adaptation Project.

“The area where it is snowing right now, that is considered a snow belt. They are used to very significant snow events coming off of Lake Erie, particularly around this time of year. So residents in townships in that area will be loading up with salt, people will be paying attention to news forecasts as well and those who travel will know it is not a good idea during that period. They have been preparing.”

State officials have said as many as six deaths are linked to the heavy snowfall. And Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency as more snowfall was expected through Thursday. Parts of southern Ontario have also been warned to expect heavy snowfall on Wednesday, and while it is not expected to be anything like what hit Buffalo, Canadian cities are ramping up preparations in the event of an imminent crisis.

And it can be a crisis. High levels of snowfall can put excess pressure of municipal coffers by requiring more snow clearing efforts than anticipated and requiring additional staffing early in the year. Last winter, higher-than-expected snowfall drained city budgets across the country, including Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and St. John’s – which went $98,000 over budget in the first 10 days of 2014.

“Events like that are so extreme and so big that they put a lot of pressure on local municipal resources. It is difficult to forecast that you are going to see over a couple of days six to 10 feet of snow,” Thistlethwaite told Yahoo Canada News. “In Ontario, for instance, a lot of cities are already over their snow budget – the money allocated for salt and plowing roads. That is gone, we are into next year’s budget already. It is a really dicey thing to predict.”

In a morning press conference, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said city crews were on the street trying to clear the thick layer of snow.

Firefighters are using snowmobiles to respond to emergency calls, and city residents have been ordered not to drive in South Buffalo - the hardest-hit section of the city.

Buffalo itself has nearly 70 truck drivers and equipment operators who are called in to help clear city streets. The city spent $700,000 this year upgrading its fleet of snow plows and says it has 4,000 tons of salt currently in stock.

Toronto officials are set to announce the details of this year’s snow response strategy at a briefing on Wednesday. Last year, Toronto had a fleet of 600 snow plows, 300 sidewalk plows and 200 salt trucks on call seven days a week.

The crew is set to begin snow clearing efforts at low thresholds. Salting begins immediately after the snow begins to fall, while 2.5 centimetres of snow prompts the clearing of expressways. After five centimetres of snow has fallen, main roads are cleared, and local roads are cleared after eight centimetres of snow has fallen.

But that is for an average snowfall. When a storm hits, city crews are forced to respond quickly, vigorously and effectively to the crisis.

When one considers Toronto’s snow response strategy, it is hard not to think back to 1999, when the city was caught unprepared for 118 centimetres of snow and mayor Mel Lastman called the military to help dig the city free.

But last year’s winter was a doozy as well. The city set snowfall records in February, but even earlier than that – in December – it was struck by a blast so severe that Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly considered revisiting the notion of military assistance and Mayor Rob Ford said the province should help cover the cleanup bill.

In its wake, the city reconsidered how it responds to weather emergencies. Thistlethwaite says we’ll see a lot more of that this year.

“What this speaks to is how very, very simple things such as wind direction and the temperature difference between the air and water can disrupt our economies and disrupt our way of life for days on end,” he said. “You watch. It will take a long time for them to recover down there.”