snow day fear of weather east coast new brunswick hurricane juan

Snow days stem from fear of missing another Hurricane Juan warning

I’m settling back in my armchair to share my ‘expert’ two cents on the seemingly never-ending debate around snow days and class time in New Brunswick. There’s a lot to consider, so you might want to settle in, as well.

First, there’s the idea that we have too many snow days. Then, the question of whether we should we switch to keeping schools open but delay/cancel bus service, as is the case in many other parts of the country. And let’s not forget to debate the amount of time our children spend in class already! But we keep skipping over something that’s at the heart of all this: our attitude toward weather. When did we become so afraid of a little winter storm? Why do officials seem so paralysed with fear of making the wrong call when it comes to potential weather systems?

I think a large part of the blame goes to Hurricane Juan and Halifax. (I realize that’s not the only place that sustained damage, but I’d argue it was the impact there that shifted people’s attitudes and expectations.) It was late September 2003. Juan was making its way up the Atlantic coast. The Canadian Hurricane Centre began issuing statements about its potential severity on September 25; Nova Scotia officials had, as usual, reminded residents earlier in the month to be prepared for possible Hurricane activity. Trim your trees, replenish your emergency kit, have a plan. They repeated this on September 28, hours before Juan came ashore. And yet I recall that most people let the information wash over them; we heard the warnings each year, and each year the storms were never so bad that you needed all that to survive. Juan was different – and because of our complacency, we weren’t ready.

Hurricane Juan has been described as the “greatest emergency response effort in Nova Scotia since the Halifax Explosion.” It landed as a Category 2 hurricane, with winds reaching 160 km/h. It moved from the iconic Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, where it decimated 70,000 trees, through the province to PEI. Hundreds were left homeless, thousands were without power. Streets were impassable. People lost their lives. It was a major event that we, as citizens, did not expect. It was a once in a lifetime event.

But ever since then, I’ve noticed a shift. Forecasters and emergency officials and the media push the information about potential storms again and again. Citizens clamour for more details, sharing their unease on social media. Smartphones weren’t in everyone’s pocket back in 2003. We didn’t feed off each other’s fears and anxieties then. Today, we allow a constant stream of other people’s opinions to push into our own thoughts all day long. That’s not healthy or helpful.

Are there days when school buses shouldn’t be on the road? Yes. Of course there are. Should schools still open on those days? Maybe some days, but not always. Could the province renegotiate the teachers’ contract to accommodate changes in how we approach snow days? Perhaps. Perhaps they might also look at how professional development randomly scattered through the year disrupt classroom routines.

What we need is to step back from the edge of hyperbole. We don’t need to hide in our homes, afraid of a possible weather-related accident. We need to make critical, educated, non-emotional decisions based on facts and figures, not what-ifs. We need to trust the people that we hire and that we elect to make decisions are capable, compassionate individuals who want the best possible outcomes. Our lack of planning for one major weather event has caused a ripple effect that is causing us to live in fear. It’s time to stop.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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