Niagara pre-emptively declares a state of emergency in anticipation of massive solar eclipse crowds

Officials estimate that the total solar eclipse on April 8 could prompt up to one million people to visit Canada’s Niagara Falls. In preparation, a pre-emptive state of emergency has been declared for Ontario’s Niagara Region.

Unlike other sudden-onset disasters, there is specific information available in advance about the potential dangerous impacts of the eclipse. It is known when and where large crowds of spectators will converge — the location of any impacts will be at the prime vantage points in proximity to Niagara Falls. The timing of any potential impacts will be immediately before, during and after the eclipse.

We face an odd juxtaposition of emergency management techniques as applied to the viewing of a rare celestial event. Understanding how a declaration of a state of emergency relates to the eclipse helps understand the human aspects of the upcoming celestial event.

Advance preparation

At the basic level, the management of the massive temporary population influx has some similarities to the management of large planned special events.

Special event characteristics include non-routine mass gatherings that place an extraordinary strain on community resources. Temporary large crowds of people require additional advance planning and preparation.

Unlike fixed-location special events, such as sports championships, an eclipse can bring wildcards. The location of the influx of spectators can change rapidly. For example, changes in cloud cover can cause eager spectators to rush in a way a little like storm chasing, from overcast viewing areas to clear ones, causing a hurried chaos of distracted movement.

Crowds of people lined the streets in New York City to watch the solar eclipse in August 2017.
(Shutterstock)

Declaring a state of emergency

A provincial act, the Ontario Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA), enables a regional municipality like Niagara to declare their own localized state of emergency.

Sec. 6.62 of the Ontario Provincial Emergency Response Plan specifies that, under the provisions of the EMCPA, municipalities can decide what their own emergencies are. The head of the municipality — in Ontario, the mayor or the reeve — can then issue the orders they feel are necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of inhabitants.

The Niagara Region’s Emergency Plan specifies that the powers to declare a state of emergency rest with the mayors of any one of the 12 Niagara-area local municipalities, and also with the regional chair.

Effective March 28, Niagara Regional Chair Jim Bradley declared a state of emergency in the entire region due to the upcoming eclipse.

Generally, a state of emergency provides government with the authority to do whatever is necessary for the safety of people and the protection of property. Typical actions can include restriction of movements, suspension of regulations to expedite response and creation of new emergency legal sanctions.

Emergency declarations are issued for a wide range of situations beyond routine natural disasters like floods or forest fires. For example, in March 2023, the Niagara Regional Council declared a state of emergency over mental health, homelessness and opioid addiction.

Pre-emptive declarations

While a declaration of a state of emergency is typically made after a disaster occurs, pre-emptive declarations are by no means unique. Emergency planners in the Niagara Region have long anticipated potential emergencies associated with the temporary population influx of eclipse spectators.

If, for any reason, a disaster response is needed during the eclipse, time will be of the essence. Reasons for issuing a pre-emptive emergency declaration involve laying the bureaucratic foundations for quickly ramping up management procedures, rapidly deploying resources and co-ordinating multi-jurisdictional support.

While pre-emptive states of emergency are rare in Canada, there have been other situations elsewhere, like hurricanes leading to states of emergency being declared in advance.

In September 2023, one day before the landfall of Hurricane Lee, the governor of Maine declared an anticipatory state of emergency.

Ontario’s Niagara Region has declared a state of emergency as it readies to welcome up to a million visitors for the solar eclipse on April 8.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio

Prudent planning

It would be foolhardy to not use all tools available to prepare for dealing with emergencies during the eclipse, including pre-emptive emergency declarations.

At best, throngs of cautious and well-behaved eclipse spectators will enjoy witnessing the rare natural phenomenon, and no major problems will occur.

At worst, many emergencies may occur: infrastructure can fail, a terrorist attack may be carried out, vehicle accidents can cause major congestion. Additionally, during mass gathering events, there is a noticeable rise in the workload for emergency medical service personnel.

A pre-emptive declaration of a state of emergency is an example of prudent planning. It allows for the necessary tools to be in place to respond quickly to any unintended consequences of the temporary population influx of eclipse spectators. Läs mer…

A human, environmental and economic emergency response to the Baltimore Key Bridge collapse

On March 26, the container ship Dali in Baltimore’s industrial harbour struck an interstate highway bridge, causing it to catastrophically collapse. Eight highway maintenance workers were thought to be on the bridge at the time of collapse. Two were rescued, and two bodies were recovered. Four workers remain missing, and are now presumed dead.

The ship-bridge collision was a technological disaster, defined as an event caused by a malfunction of a technological structure or human error in controlling or handling the technology.

In this case, the root cause of the disaster involved the interaction of two types of transportation technologies: a moving container ship and a fixed bridge.

Read more:
Human-centred design can help reduce accidents like the recent Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 crash

A history of bridge collapses

The disaster is not unprecedented — between 1960 to 2015 there have been 35 major bridge collapses due to collisions by ships or barges.

On Feb. 22, in Guangzhou, south China, a container ship rammed into a bridge pillar leading to the subsequent collapse of the Lixinsha Bridge, and killing five people.

A massive container ship crashed into the Lixinsha Bridge in southern China on Feb. 22, 2024.
(Lu Hanxin/Xinhua via AP)

The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge serves as another stark reminder that despite our technological prowess, accidents involving transportation technology will continue to occur when we least expect them.

The immediate response

The immediate response started with a mayday call from the troubled ship causing police to take action to prevent more cars from going onto the bridge. U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders received a report at 1:27 a.m. of a container ship colliding with the bridge, and immediately deployed search and rescue boats to the shipping channel in Baltimore’s harbour.

The first 24 hours after the collapse focused on saving more lives, to no avail. People who survived the 56-metre fall from the bridge deck into the Patapsco River then faced water temperatures of nine degrees Celsius.

If not immediately rescued, chances of survival in cold river water become difficult due to cold shock and hypothermia setting in.

Tons of submerged bridge wreckage and tidal currents created perilous conditions for rescue operations. After an extensive search and rescue effort until sunset on March 26, the next-day emergency response activity transitioned to the grim task of recovery of the dead.

About eight hours after the collapse, the mayor of Baltimore declared a state of emergency. The governor then issued an executive order, declaring a state of emergency for Maryland.

The Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest harbours in the U.S.
(Shutterstock)

A state of emergency allows officials to temporarily use extraordinary powers. Suspension of laws and regulations, quick redirection of funds, rapid deployment of personnel and the facilitation of federal aid are all reasons why a state of emergency would be declared.

The collision caused all maritime traffic to be stopped — a significant impact on one of the busiest harbours in the United States as a port of entry for foreign goods. Most of the Port of Baltimore’s shipping terminals are located within the area blocked by bridge collapse debris.

In this case, the emergency declarations may allow governments to waive regulations around competitive bidding to speed the eventual bridge rebuilding project.

Pollution and debris clean-up

Immediately after the collision, response operations include preventing environmental contamination. As the distressed cargo ship was departing to the Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka, it had on board about 1.8 million gallons of fuel. Out of the thousands of containers being transported, 56 containers contained 764 tons of hazardous materials.

Removing the damaged steel latticework of the bridge’s trusses off the bow of the ship will be a challenging feat.

Debris now blocks navigation along the Fort McHenry Channel. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has started underwater surveys to assess what needs to be done for debris removal.

U.S. White House press briefing after the Baltimore bridge collision.

The debris removal effort will be especially complex as sensitivity is required. In and around the same area where the federal debris removal assessment is taking place, rescue officials were searching for bodies — the search has been paused for safety reasons.

The Maryland State Police underwater recovery team has responsibilities involving the recovery of the bodies of the missing highway workers.

Unified command response

Unified command is an emergency management technique applied when there is more than one agency with incident jurisdiction.

The Fort McHenry navigation channel and the I-695 bridge itself fall under multiple local, state and federal jurisdictional responsibilities. On March 27, a unified command joint information centre was established to co-ordinate emergency responses.

Sadly, within the first 48 hours search and rescue transitioned to search and recovery. Operations will be moving in the direction of salvage and port recovery.

Going forward, the main priority is clearing the shipping channel to reopen the Port of Baltimore. True to form to the characteristics of a technological disaster, it will take a while to determine the scope of the impacts.

For the immediate future, timelines for when the Baltimore Harbour can return to normal will remain elusive. Läs mer…