Non-profits call for robust emergency response plan

·5 min read

Following last week’s blizzard, community advocates are calling for a more robust emergency response plan to ensure Brandon’s most vulnerable population is cared for when extreme weather events strike.

The City of Brandon has a program in place in case of emergencies, including extreme weather. It consists of two distinct segments: emergency response and public preparedness information. Both parts work to include government, business and the general public in response based on a co-ordinated community approach to public information, an early warning and response training.

Upon receiving notification a major weather event was on the way, the emergency response control group — which includes all city departments — worked quickly to prepare, said Tobin Praznik, the city’s emergency manager. Advanced notice of the storm provided ample opportunity to communicate with partners and plan a response.

"It highlighted the importance of not only resiliency but also additional plans in case the first one doesn’t work," Praznik said.

During the snowstorm, the city made calls to community partners to better understand the resources needed.

"We have to find out if there is anything we can help with. We’re very fortunate with our community partners and groups in our downtown area that do an excellent job for our vulnerable population and community," Praznik said. "We become that extension and support. If there is something that they don’t have or are not prepared for then we’ll look at the necessary steps needed to support them."

The city works to stay in regular contact with community partners to prepare for extreme events and identify gaps in service and establish what potential responses could look like.

To better understand the needs of some of the city’s most vulnerable during times of extreme weather, the John Howard Society of Brandon spoke with clients during the storm. Executive director Ross Robinson said those in the downtown area who visit John Howard highlighted the adversity unhoused people face when living on the street during a wet and cold snowstorm.

When someone gets cold and wet, they stay cold and wet because it is difficult to warm up and dry off. Many clients were searching for shelter from the wind and to warm up when the blizzard was at its worst.

"The city’s put a lot of things together to help out, there’s been a lot of work between agencies to get us where we are at, but there are some significant gaps still and there always will be," Robinson said.

John Howard learned from the storm that Brandon needs more and better facilities where people can access resources during extreme weather events, but it is hard to visualize what this would look like. Robinson said having non-profits available like the Blue Door Project drop-in centre has been a tremendous benefit to the downtown community.

Working together with other agencies remains critical, he said. For example, the Community Wellness Collaborative plays an important role in breaking down walls between organizations and bringing groups together to solve problems.

Unofficial snowfall amounts released by Environment Canada after last week’s storm indicate areas of southwestern Manitoba saw between 20 to 80 centimetres of snow. Brandon saw about 12 centimetres of snowfall Wednesday.

"It was just a lot of heavy snowfall, a lot of ice around town, and it did definitely impact the clients and the patrons that come to our centre," said Amanda Bray, the program co-ordinator for the Helping Hands Centre of Brandon.

"A storm like this comes up and it’s said, ‘hunker down, get supplies and stay home.’ What if you don’t have a place to go? What if you don’t have the money to purchase food? What do you do?"

Helping Hands prepared as best as it could for the storm. Those who visit the soup kitchen typically eat and then leave, but during the storm they stayed longer to escape the elements.

Helping Hands is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. It typically serves around 120 people each day and saw this number drop to around 80 on Wednesday and 91 on Thursday.

Helping Hands established an "on the fly" partnership with other local organizations, including the Blue Door Project, to provide food for the drop-in and also made sandwiches for Brandon Bear Clan to hand out.

"With this weather, or not, people need to eat and we didn’t want people starving because of it," Bray said. "It was really heartwarming, to be honest, to see how many people came together to do our best to provide for the most vulnerable population in Brandon."

An extreme weather response plan is needed not just for Brandon’s vulnerable population, but for the city as a whole, said community advocate Kim Longstreet.

She praised the work of local agencies for collaborating and working to ensure they were able to meet the challenges brought on by the storm. However, she cautioned this adds to the pressure on the daily work these organizations already do and puts a financial burden on them because more of their resources are being used.

"I don’t think that should fall to the non-profits and the service providers in the community," Longstreet said. "I do believe that the city needs to have a plan as Winnipeg has where it is clearly lined out."

Longstreet is referring to "Extreme Weather Response: A homeless-centred plan for keeping Winnipeggers safer," an action plan created by End Homelessness Winnipeg that directs different services providers in a time of crisis.

The plan was established in December 2016 following the death of Windy Sinclair. End Homelessness Winnipeg worked with stakeholders to co-ordinate a cross-sector response during extreme weather to help protect the life and safety of the unhoused and those vulnerable to exposure.

"We made it through the storm; now, let’s get prepared for the next one," Longstreet said.

Antoinette Gravel-Ouellette, co-chair of the Community Wellness Collaborative, praised meteorologists for providing warning well in advance off the storm, giving non-profits time to organize and pull together to provide for vulnerable populations.

Looking at the wellness of a community largely comes down to how well people are connected, Gravel-Ouellette said.

"I really think that in the community, connection is the medicine that will heal," Gravel-Ouellette said. "It’s about all of the organizations working together and supporting that as a mechanism."

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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