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In wake of N.S. flooding tragedy, a mother and father press for better preparedness

MARTOCK, N.S. — Tera Sisco reaches into a drawer, pulls out a sheet of paper and reads a sentence prepared for her son’s funeral after he died in Nova Scotia’s historic flooding in late July. “I’m not done being Colton’s Mom,” it says.

During a recent interview at her home, Sisco said this phrase is her reminder she will advocate for improvements in how Nova Scotia prepares for and responds to climate disasters, as she grieves the little boy whose feet she still imagines tiptoeing into her room. 

However, almost one month after the deaths of Colton Sisco and Natalie Harnish, both six, and 52-year-old Nick Holland and 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy, many of the questions haunting her and Colton’s father, Chris Sisco, remain unanswered. The issues include a public alert that was delayed close to two hours, unreliable cellular service and a lack of flood-risk mapping officials could have used to prepare for the torrential thunderstorms of July 21-22.

“Governments aren’t moving quickly enough to prepare for climate change,” and Canadians are now seeing avoidable climate disaster deaths, Tera Sisco said.

“These climate events are historic, and my little boy is part of that history now.”

On the night of the tragedy, Tera Sisco was on an overnight shift at her job caring for adults with intellectual disabilities and heard the deputy fire chief’s repeated requests for an emergency alert on an online radio scanner. After hearing a second request at about 2:07 a.m., she used Facebook messenger audio to call Chris Sisco and woke him up at 2:28 a.m.

Chris Sisco said that if he had have received an emergency alert, he would have been “awake and watching.”

“They (the firefighters) asked for the alert almost 90 minutes before we were woken up in the house …. I’m sure we would have been fine if we had had just a few more minutes,” he said.

When he awoke to Tera’s call and put his feet on the floor, he could feel water. “The house was filling up with water, and all I could think of was the risk posed by combining water and live electricity,” he said.

While Chris called 911, Tera again used Facebook audio to rouse Chris’s neighbours on Route 14, northwest of Halifax, Nick and Courtney Harnish and their two children.

About 15 minutes after being wakened, Sisco, a qualified truck driver, noticed an 18-wheel truck go by, and he figured that meant the waters were still shallow enough to allow the fully loaded Ford F-550 truck he had at his disposal to escape. The children were placed in the truck’s back seat, alongside Courtney Harnish, with Nick Harnish driving, and Sisco in the passenger seat.

But after the four-tonne vehicle exited the driveway and was beginning to head down the road, the powerful current pushed it into a flooding hayfield, and it began to sink, he said.  The windows had been lowered, and as they went down he ended up outside the truck.

“I grabbed it (the front window frame) with my foot and I held myself to the truck,” he said.

“But the water kept rising,” he recalled. A poor swimmer, he said he desperately tried to go back down and grab the truck, where the two six-year-olds were trapped. He said he felt it briefly with his hand.

“But as I tried to pull myself further (towards the truck) the current was stronger than I was, and as soon as I let it (the truck) go, I lost the truck,” he said. He was now struggling for his own life in powerful currents and water that was above his head.

That was when Michael Smith, a 31-year-old stranger who was dropping off a friend nearby, emerged amid the raging waters and pelting rain and guided him to a tree. He then swam to him with a canoe, which Sisco held onto as Smith towed him to a rescue boat. 

By then, Smith said in an interview, he had also managed to bring the Harnishes and their two-year-old to a tree they could cling to. A search and rescue boat picked the couple and their youngest child up from that location. “He saved us,”  Sisco said of Smith.

Tera and Chris Sisco, who are separated, now say they want changes that might help save others in the future. Both said the priority should be reforms to alert the public more quickly of flooding danger. “I think if it had been put out even a half-hour earlier that they (Chris and the Harnishes) would have had a chance of saving our kids,” Tera Sisco said.

Smith said that when he arrived at the area, at about 2:15 a.m., it would still have been possible to safely flee along the rural route in a vehicle.

Tera Sisco said she’s also aware that independent studies have called for Nova Scotia to do more to prepare for flooding.

In a 2020 report by the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, the province received a “C” in flooding preparedness, performing poorly in eight out of nine flood-risk preparedness criteria identified by the researchers.

The criteria included producing up-to-date flood-risk mapping; creating incentives to dissuade people from building on floodplains; and ensuring critical infrastructure — such as telecommunications equipment and highways — wouldn’t be debilitated by flooding.

“Suggestions along the lines of,  ‘We could not foresee this event,’ no longer hold weight,” Blair Feltmate, a co-author of the report, said in an email. “If those charged to lead did not know enough to prepare ahead of the storm, they should have known.” 

Premier Tim Houston has directed the province’s Emergency Management Office to meet over the next month with municipalities, police and fire services to improve the emergency alert system. He has also asked them to look into the possibility of giving local emergency management officials more authority to send out alerts themselves.

However, Mark Phillips, chief administrative officer of the Municipality of West Hants, said in an interview Thursday that on the night of the disaster, he was initially “off grid” due to inadequate cell service. Meanwhile, the municipality’s emergency management manager faced delays at her residence due to the flooding and was without proper cell service, he said.

Phillips said the emergency manager was only able to begin working on the alert after being transported by firefighters to a civic centre where she could use a dedicated radio system. The deputy fire chief in the area had called for an alert at 1:12 a.m., but the warning to the public of the dangerous flooding only came at 3:06 a.m., close to two hours later.

“There’s room for improvement in respect to authorization (of alerts),” he said, but he added that there may be times when the emergency official at the provincial office should take charge to send the message.

Phillips said flood-hazard mapping would be helpful, but with localized rainfall of up to 250 millimetres creating unpredictable flash flooding, some of the flooding hit what was previously considered “high land.”

Municipal Affairs Minister John Lohr declined an interview request, while his officials sent an email indicating an “after-action report” into the incident will begin this fall. Spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn said in an email that flood risk maps are now being prepared for the area.

Federally, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said during a visit on July 27 she will be pressing the CRTC and telecommunications firms to improve cellular service in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Tera Sisco said that she favours an independent probe, similar to public inquests held in Ontario, with recommendations for reform. But she doesn’t want such a process to delay obvious improvements that are needed, whether it be in quicker authorizations of alerts or improved cellular service.

There is likely little time to waste, as the province’s hurricane season approaches, she noted.

“These 100-year storms are no longer 100-year storms. They could become common and reoccurring. Even since this, we’ve had three major thunderstorms here, and I’ve been terrified of every single one,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2023.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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