Tuesday 20 March 2018

Lessons learned from 2010 minister row as 'safety-first' strategy wins out


Former environment minister John Gormley. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Former environment minister John Gormley. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

When it's gone we may well wonder what all the fuss was about.

The snow will melt away and for most of us the clearest memory of the 'Beast from the East' will be making that snowman or the night we weren't allowed to go outside.

Some will have found the local pub opened for a late night session. Others will have had Christmas Day-style rows over board games.

There will inevitably be recriminations in the weeks ahead as people question whether it was the correct decision to call a national shutdown.

Tourists on the streets of Dublin yesterday wandered through the slush, looking somewhat bemused by the line of closed shops on Grafton Street.

No planes, trains, buses or Luas. Only a handful of cars found their way out from under the snow drifts.

But in other parts of the country there was little more than a dusting. A decent snowball fight wasn't even an option.

That's the call which had to be made by the National Emergency Co-ordination Group (NECG). It was all or nothing.

The 4pm 'stay indoors' notice was based more on human nature than science.

They wanted everybody inside before sunset, and with plenty of time to spare before Storm Emma landed on the south coast.

By late evening there wasn't much to see out through the window, but as the clock ticked on, the wind picked up and the snow whipped up.

Many of those who did stay out ran straight into trouble. Hundreds of motorists had to be rescued after getting stuck in their cars.

Even a number of fire engines and ambulances ran aground as conditions worsened. But because most people listened to the warning it wasn't that bad.

Was it the right call? Well, maybe the best way to answer that is to cast your mind back to the last big freeze in 2010.

At the time just 5cm of snow in the capital brought the capital to an unscheduled halt.

Schools were eventually ordered to shut for three days but ministers rowed over who was responsible.

Then Taoiseach Brian Cowen was nowhere to be seen, and even worse, transport minister Noel Dempsey was abroad on holidays and refused to come home.

And when environment minister John Gormley appeared on television to reassure the nation, he did the exact opposite. In a bizarre interview he became irked at being labelled the 'Minister for Snow' and declared: "I'm not the boss."

Meanwhile, the local authorities ran out of salt and efforts to keep roads open were simply abandoned.

We've certainly learned some lessons since then. Yesterday, once the blizzard passed Transport Infrastructure Ireland was working at full capacity to grit 24,000km of road and spread 6,000 tonnes of salt.

The Taoiseach and Environment Minister have been giving daily updates but let the experts make the decisions. The Coast Guard and Defence Forces stepped in to help fire and ambulance crews. Met Éireann used its new colour coded-system and issued almost minute-by-minute reports on the approaching weather.

And it seems, for now at least, that the only cost of this event has been economic.

Lessons can still be learned, but 'safety first' won out.

Irish Independent

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