Local officials plan for the big one; emergency earthquake exercise draws 100 to Joel Steele Community Centre

Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Training and Emergency Management Coordinator Katherine Beehler (left) and Dr. Kate Ploeger, seismic expert, at the Dec. 15 emergency management planning exercise in Winchester. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

WINCHESTER — A powerful mock earthquake rolled through Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry this month, but local officials were unshaken as they grappled with the emergency management exercise.

Drawing municipal staff, first responders and other interested parties from across the United Counties, the day-long Dec. 15 session was premised on a 6.3 magnitude quake epicentered in southwestern Quebec.

Individual township contingents sat at separate tables, with each group receiving an envelope detailing the hypothetical scenario as applied to their specific municipality.

“You’re not testing people, you’re testing plans,” explained Katherine Beehler, Training and Emergency Management Coordinator for SDG.

This group from the Municipality of South Dundas strategized around their table, as part of the exercise. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

This group from the Municipality of South Dundas strategized around their table, as part of the exercise. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Beehler, who joined the United Counties staff just this past June, coordinated the event with Philippe Geoffrion of Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management, and seismic expert Dr. Kate Ploeger.

Emergency exercises and table-top planning have been a regular thing in Ontario municipalities since the Ice Storm of 1998. The Dec. 15 exercise at Winchester’s Joel Steele Community Centre did not have an operational name or title, as they sometimes do.

“Every year, communities have to do an exercise, but we haven’t done one like this [involving the whole United Counties] in a number of years,” Beehler said.

Bringing her PhD in applied geomatics to the event, Ploeger explained her expertise lay in estimating earthquake-related losses. The size and location of the 6.3 earthquake envisioned for that day’s scenario was certainly “big enough to cause damage” in SD&G, she said, adding there are pockets where underlying geology “is just right” to amplify earthquake waves for even worse outcomes.

Scientific evidence indicates the Western Quebec seismic zone is capable of producing a quake measuring a whopping 7.5 on the richter scale, added Ploeger, who also pointed out that the Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys fall within an ominous-sounding “crustal of weakness” in geological terms.

She said officials in Eastern Canada face greater challenges planning for earthquake disasters because the issue hasn’t been top of mind here. Yet, in this part of the country, a large earthquake has the potential to be “physically, economically and socially devastating across a wider area” compared to other potential disasters, she said.

Geoffrion said the tabletop strategists had to brainstorm four phases in the aftermath of a quake, beginning with their immediate response in the first 24 hours, followed by planning the next 24-hour period. Ensuring the “business continuity” of municipal government and planning the community’s general recovery rounded out the third and fourth respective stages considered by the participants.

The mock disaster was played as if occurring that same day, in the equivalent December weather conditions, he said.


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