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The Great Maritime Blizzard or ‘White Juan’ (February 18, 2004)

Every storm has a story. According to Environment Canada, “… this one was the mammoth snowfall and blizzard.”(Environment Canada)

On 18 February 2004, an intense low pressure system formed well south of Nova Scotia, as cold air from eastern North America clashed with the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. A vast area of heavy snow, high winds, and zero visibility swept across Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and southeast New Brunswick, bringing blizzard conditions and record snowfalls.

 Environment Canada, GOES satellite imagery showing the evolution of the storm

The Perfect Blizzard

The total maximum 24-hour storm deepening between February 18 and 19 was 37 mb. The commonly accepted minimum for a storm to be dubbed a meteorological “bomb” is 24 mb in 24 hours. As such, this system exceeded the storm “bomb” criterion by a factor of 1.5. Visible and infrared GOES satellite imagery (shown above) depicts the storm during the rapid deepening period, with a cloud pattern typical of a cyclone in its formation stage.

 White Juan’s Direct Impacts on HRM

A widespread accumulation of 60 to 90 cm (24 to 36 inches or 2 to 3 feet) of snow brought Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to a complete standstill. States of emergency were put into effect across these provinces to allow emergency officials to clean up the mammoth snowfall. The HRM issued a traffic curfew to keep motorists and pedestrians off the streets. It took days for many urban streets and highways to be cleared. HRM Public transit was paralyzed for four days, followed by very limited service.

Meanwhile, the elderly and disabled, and those on social assistance endured the impact of this storm for several weeks, with lack of access to public facilities and health services, food and warm shelters. Although power outages were not nearly as widespread during the blizzard as they were during Hurricane Juan, the combination of blizzard conditions and power outages could have generated numerous cases of hypothermia. Storm surge waters came near high tide on the night of February 19. Based on observations in the Pictou County area of Nova Scotia, the surge may have been on the order of 1.5 m (5 feet).

With White Juan, there was neither public nor private transportation available for several days. With this Blizzard emergency, there was greater inter-agency coordination with the NS Department of Transportation and Public Works to facilitate road clearing for stranded residents and vulnerable clients without food, medications, hospital emergencies, or daycare. Unlike Hurricane Juan, White Juan was a ‘clean’ emergency as people remained in the safety of their homes, with nowhere to go.

Without electricity or water, vulnerable sections of the population, such as the elderly, families with infants, and the physically challenged, were put at greater risk during both extreme events. Transportation issues complicated both the work of Emergency Health Services (EHS), and the provision of health care to home-based patients. To further complicate matters, the roof literally blew off one wing of the Victoria General Hospital (a campus of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre). This forced the immediate evacuation of patients and equipment to another wing of HRM’s largest hospital.

The public was well informed in advance, as people were seen preparing ahead of time by stocking up on foodstuffs and batteries. A blessing in disguise, Hurricane Juan in a sense prepped the HRM population for future disasters, such as White Juan.

In HRM, four reception centres were established. For outlying regions, seven fire halls were designated for evacuees. These evacuation and reception centres were used by numerous HRM residents during the emergency response period. All told, $1.13 million was spent in emergency response. The Nova Scotia Provincial Red Cross helped set-up Comfort Centres and shelters for hot meals (including community barbecues). The Salvation Army and military also assisted with community barbecues.  

Throughout the 12 days, Red Cross: assisted approximately 30,000 people; provided over 5,000 meals; distributed approximately 40,000 bottles of water and juice; volunteered over 5,000 hours of time; organized 70 food drops in 45 different locations in  HRM and along the Truro corridor; distributed massive amounts of in-kind donations such as food, diapers, batteries and other necessities (in partnership with the Metro Food Bank); and initiated an “Adopt a Neighbour” program to encourage people with restored power to reach out to neighbours, relatives and friends.

Although stressed, the concentration of infrastructure within HRM (because it services 40% of the provincial population) provided significant service delivery capacity in comparison to other coastal communities in Atlantic Canada. HRM is also the home of one of eastern Canada’s largest military concentrations, with the only Joint Emergency Operations Centre (JEOC) in Canada.