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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space and Everything In-Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

What is a State of Emergency? Here's how it affects you

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, January 15, 2018, 6:15 PM - With Corner Brook Mayor Jim Parsons declaring a state of emergency over the weekend, due to the impacts of intense rainfall and flooding, what exactly does that mean? What is a "state of emergency" and how does it affect the population?

Over the weekend, the combination of heavy rainfall from a passing weather system, and a rapidly-melting snow pack as local temperatures rose into the low teens on Saturday, caused widespread flooding throughout Corner Brook, NFLD. Roads were washed out and the local municipal drainage system was overwhelmed by the rapid influx of water. As a result, the city declared a local state of emergency, advising residents to remain indoors, to stay off roads and sidewalks, and to stay away from rushing street waters and to avoid the Main Street bridge. Several roads were closed due to the flooding.

When severe weather strikes, leading to damages and widespread impacts, and these impacts exceed the community's ability to manage the situation under the normal state of affairs, the government can declare a state of emergency.

This can be a mayor or city council making the declaration of a local state of emergency, such as in the case of Corner Brook this past weekend, or during Montreal's flooding in May of 2017, or in Halifax, in response to Hurricane Juan in 2003. The province can declare a generalized state of emergency which can cover multiple regions, due to more widespread impacts. Some examples include B.C.'s province-wide declaration due to wildfires, from July 5 to September 15, 2017, or Alberta's response to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and to the 2013 southern Alberta floods, or Ontario's state of emergency due to the 2003 North American blackout. The federal government can also declare a state of emergency to handle a nation-wide crisis.

So what, exactly, constitutes an emergency?

Each province has their own exact wording, as part of their own unique emergency management regulations, but the common theme is any event, situation or condition, either present or imminent, which can be due to an accident, an intentional act, or a force of nature, that requires the prompt coordination of actions and/or resources, to protect the health, safety and welfare of people, or prevent or limit damage to property or the environment.

What happens when a state of emergency is declared?

Regardless of whether it is declared at the municipal or provincial level, a state of emergency gives the government a wide range of special powers to deal with the situation at hand.

They can, where it is considered reasonable that it will alleviate damage or harm during the emergency:

• in some cases, conscript citizens to help with efforts to manage the emergency
• in others, to authorize qualified citizens to assist in emergency management efforts
• confiscate equipment and property that will assist in emergency management
• make goods and resources available for distribution to those areas impacted
• fix prices of goods and services, to avoid incidences of "price gouging"
• impose a curfew on residents of the affected areas
• prohibit, or at least limit, travel to, from or within the areas impacted by the emergency
• establish emergency shelters
• enter any building without a warrant
• order residents to evacuate the affected areas

The above is just a list of common examples, as powers vary depending on the province in which the state of emergency was declared. Also, not all of the measures are typically exercised (for example, conscripting citizens is apparently extremely rare). In those cases where property is confiscated during the emergency, owners are compensated by the government. At the same time, the government, and those acting on its behalf during the emergency, are typically exempt from any civil liability, unless they were somehow grossly negligent, or they were not acting in good faith. 

Declaring a state of emergency also gives the government access to emergency funding, to help deal with the situation as it happens, and for any cleanup required afterward. This typically includes funding offered to residents who suffered losses or damages due to the emergency, which are not covered by insurance.

For a limited time, only!

When a state of emergency is declared, it is understood to be a temporary measure.

Depending on the province, a state of emergency automatically expires within a specific time limit, 7 days or 14 days, for example, unless it is revoked sooner. A state of emergency can be extended, though, in cases where the emergency persists for longer than the allotted time limit. For example, B.C.'s 2017 state of emergency due to wildfires lasted over 50 days. In that case, the government had to renew the state of emergency every two weeks, to provide the necessary assistance to firefighters and to those who were forced to evacuate.

As indicated above, weather isn't the only reason to declare a state of emergency. It can be in response to an epidemic or pandemic, a terrorist attack, the threat of war, or a natural disaster, such as an earthquake. Extreme weather is simply the most common reason why a state of emergency is declared.

Sources: ON Gov't | NFLD Gov't | NS Gov't (pdf) | NB Gov't | PEI Gov't | QC Gov't | MN Gov't | SK Gov't (pdf) | AB Gov't (pdf) | BC Gov't | With files from The Weather Network

Watch Below: UPDATE - Cleanup continues in Corner Brook, Mayor Jim Parsons explains

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