Canada Day and disaster

Ninety-five years ago this week Canada suffered unexpected disaster.

It was June 30, 1912. Every street and every building in Regina, Saskatchewan, was festooned with bunting and patriotic flags. Two weeks of intense heat and humidity hadn’t dampened Reginans’ anticipation of the national anniversary (then called Dominion Day) the next day. Then catastrophe struck. The sky darkened in the middle of the afternoon. Winds rose to more than 500 miles per hour and the resulting cyclone sliced right through the centre of the city. In twenty minutes the storm killed 28 people, destroyed 400 buildings and caused $5 million damage. One resident described the blocking out of the sun that summer afternoon.

“It was as dark as the inside of your hat,” he said.

Within 24 hours the fledgling province’s rescue mechanism (remember, this is 1912) had kicked in. Volunteers arrived by train from across the prairies. Hospitals, train stations, schools and warehouses still intact, opened their doors to the 2,500 injured and homeless of the city. As in most emergencies, however, the disaster likely struck the elderly most severely.

I say that because this week I attended a national roundtable, sponsored by CARP (Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus). The topic: Seniors as Partners in Environmental Emergencies. Fifty representatives from across the country gathered to discuss the vulnerability of older Canadians in emergency situations. The keynote speakers – emergency managers, government policy makers, health agency representatives and experienced administrators – talked candidly about dealing with disasters, particularly helping those most vulnerable – senior citizens.

Among the first things I learned, about the time immediately following a hurricane, heat wave, earthquake or blackout: You’re on your own.

Dianne Austin realized that nine years ago when a flash flood hit her community. Then the reeve in Kinmount, Ont., she was faced with the potential loss of several elder care homes and their residents. With no outside assistance expected, she unilaterally decided to evacuate and improvise. That action and several other quick decisions to assist vulnerable people in her municipality had steep financial implications, but saved the day.

“Damn the costs,” Austin told the conference. “We had to do something.”

The two-day roundtable heard that both government and the general public in North America and Europe are too complacent and/or ill prepared when disaster strikes. And again, those most affected in environmental crises are seniors. Experts at the conference cited example after example of disasters in which fatalities were largely preventable.

Aging expert Greg Shaw pointed out that elderly women comprised nearly three-quarters of fatalities in the New York heat wave of 1984. Judith Shamian, president of the VON, spoke about the potential impact of a pandemic; between 11,000 and 50,000 could die in Canada and two-thirds of the fatalities would be among those over 65. Carolyn Bennett, federal opposition critic for social development cited the Paris heat wave of 2003, when 14,802 died – half of those, she said, were elderly women who died alone in their homes. And American seniors’ advocate, Bentley Lipscomb described his personal experience following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 when the most desperately needed commodity wasn’t food, water or shelter, but ice to keep people’s life-sustaining medicines from spoiling.

Such information and analysis proved both startling and alarming. The experts gave me some solace, however, when they agreed that smaller communities with close-knit and well established, people-oriented networks tend to do better in crisis than larger ones. They said the existence of neighbourhood watch programs, active church groups, locally designed and maintained infrastructure, service organizations that are well connected and a strong and active volunteer base – from volunteer firefighters to Meals on Wheels – help smaller communities get through the most critical time following a disaster – the first 72 hours.

All things said, if I had to live through a disaster, I think I’d take my chances in Nova Scotia. John Webb, the provincial emergency social services planner there, said he has always operated on the basis that “you better look after yourself.” Involved in no fewer than 57 mid-sized or large scale emergencies since 1996, Webb and his grassroots workers have assembled emergency strategies – clothing and food depots, registries of the most vulnerable and shelter management. Among other things Nova Scotians realize that with a largely rural population, there need to be “comfort centres” to help people away from the big cities survive the first three days after a disaster.

“There’s only one thing tougher than preparing for a disaster,” Webb said finally, “and that’s trying to explain why we didn’t.”

Celebrate this Canada Day and all it stands for, including a community that must be connected and prepared.

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