Saturday, 28 May 2016

The ones who went before

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it," said George Santayana. 

I hope we learn from history. Otherwise why teach it? I hope people are able to take away some positives from disasters and tragedies. 

We wanted people to learn about our Slave Lake story. That was one reason we wrote The Sky was on Fire:Slave Lake's Story of Disaster, Exodus and New Beginnings.  In fact, the reviewer at the St. Albert Gazette called it "a cautionary tale that all Albertans should read."

Fort McMurray is in my thoughts. I wonder if Alberta has learned anything from our Slave Lake story.

THEN When fires struck Slave Lake on May 15 of 2011, "fire season" had just begun. Water bombers had just arrived at our tanker base. It was a dreadfully dry year. There was speculation that we were not prepared.
NOW After the fire, Environment and Sustainable Resource Development made specific recommendations in 7 key areas in the Flat Top Complex review.  One was to advance start times for resources. Fire season now begins on March 1. Necessary supports are in place well before the snow melts and fire risk increases. 

THEN Communication was poor during the 2011 fire. There was no evacuation notice. People saw the fire in their back yards. Some were actually in their homes while they were on fire. Mandatory evacuation was called 5 hours after the fire swept through the town. In the days that followed, communication continued to be limited. Rumours on social media filled the vacuum created by the lack of official response.
NOW There are clearer lines of communication, especially in wildland urban interface areas. While wildland fires are unpredictable, and people had very short notice to leave the community, Fort Mac residents were told to evacuate.  Post-fire, the provincial government provided lengthy daily updates to the press, on its website and on social media as well as evening "town hall" phone in programmes.  Their comprehensive website provides a wealth of information for evacuees.  Slave Lake MLA Danielle Larivee is now Minister of Municipal Affairs. She lived through the Slave Lake fires. I am sure she is using that experience, all the things she remembers from those difficult times, to help today's evacuees.


THEN In High River after the 2013 floods, former MLA Danielle Smith had to beg for information from the government so she could relay it to her constituents. My own MLA was rarely heard from during the Slave Lake evacuation.
NOW In Fort McMurray, Wildrose opposition leader Brian Jean was one of the first on the ground. He been working with the provincial government every step of the way, appearing with them in press conferences and being part of the solution.

THEN Lesser Slave Lake Regional Fire Service fought a fire that is beyond the scope of any fire department of its size. They reacted almost by instinct, using concepts that are more frequently used in wildland fires to protect key buildings and infrastructure. In some cases they, alongside heavy equipment operators, created firebreaks by chopping down some buildings to save others and by bulldozing the middle of a mall. 30% of Slave Lake was destroyed by fire. It would have been more if these firefighters had not used the tactics that they did.
NOW Slave Lake fire crews were dispatched immediately to Fort Mac. Their unique knowledge was used by Fort Mac firefighters to save large portions of the city. They won't tell you more than that. Because urban firefighters are trained to save houses, they don't like to talk about the times when they didn't. But maybe, just maybe, their knowledge helped save the 85% of Fort Mac that remains standing today.


THEN Red Cross donations flooded in to Slave Lake. Yet a year after the fire, only 177 thousand of the 5.5 million went to direct support. A further 2 million went to community groups and programmes. The bulk of the money went to volunteer support and hiring and housing Red Cross employees. Those who requested direct aid were humiliated by having to beg for assistance which was then denied. Neither the federal or provincial government provided financial support to the Red Cross.
NOW  Almost immediately after the evacuation, the Red Cross announced its Fort McMurray disaster relief drive. That fund is now up to 67 million dollars. Both the federal and provincial government announced matching grants to the Red Cross so aid could go to individuals and families. Ten days after the fire started, the Red Cross announced it would provide $600 in direct aid to every evacuee


THEN In 2011, university students were told "we are here for you" but then were refused any financial help. 
NOW  The U of A announced a Disaster Relief Bursary.  And while Slave Lake and High River post secondary students were given no breaks in paying for their student loans, Alberta's Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt recently announced a six month reprieve for student loan repayments.

THEN Most people with homeowners or tenant's insurance have mandatory evacuation insurance.  My own insurer phoned me the the day after the fire to tell us we were covered and to come in and pick up a cheque.  Those without insurance had to rely on friends, family and total strangers. It was heartwarming to see communities large and small come together to assist. However, people can't sleep on cots in a temporary shelter forever. Those who lost their homes and had no insurance were in deep trouble with nowhere to turn.
NOW The Alberta government announced the Wildfire Evacuee Transitional Accommodation Benefit that will cover rent, damage deposit and utility connections for up to 90 days from the date of evacuation.

THEN A third of the homes in Slave Lake were destroyed by fire. Many shady contractors showed up to rebuild, causing costly delays and leaving homeowners with poorly constructed houses. They have been without recourse.
NOW The Alberta government established the New Home Warranty Programme in 2014.
 
THEN Slave Lake Homeowners begged for assistance from Mike Holmes of "Homes on Homes" but he wasn't interested. 

THEN We Slave Lakers survived our ordeal and rebuilt our community on our own. Sure, we had moral and financial support from communities far and wide that was deeply appreciated. We had some help from the provincial government. But there weren't any people out there who had been through what we went through. We made mistakes along the way. But but we figured it out.
NOW The wisdom and knowledge of Slave Lake has been widely shared. From the "Lessons Learned" and "Wisdom Gained" and heartfelt wishes from Alberta Emergency Management, the Town of Slave Lake and MD 124, from the Facebook pages providing support, the people of Fort McMurray have people to talk to who can provide them with guidance and suggestions about their insurance, the issues their children will face, and more. 

The people of Fort McMurray are receiving the benefit of our disaster experience, whether they realize it or not. Governments and social agencies and regular folks are learning from the mistakes of the past.  Last week I was talking to a co-worker about how our school reacts to disasters. We provided free materials and instruction to Slave Lake evacuees and we are doing the same for Fort Mac. I speculated that the government was learning from the past.  He wasn't sure about that. 

I don't know if the Government of Alberta has learned a lot about how to manage a disaster but I do think that this new government has a better sense of people and their needs and that is why we are seeing the improvement that we are. They are turning people loose to do what actually needs to be done ...there seems to be a greater degree of "caringness" than there was before, and I don't think that is something you can plan for, it is either there or it isn't.
In the process of writing this, I found myself becoming a little angry. Three of my kids were in university in fall 2011. They could have used a break. I have friends that certainly could have benefited from some additional financial aid from the Red Cross. And everyone in my town would have loved more information and support from others who had gone before.
But anyone who experiences a disaster like a flood or a fire suffers.  

Why should I begrudge someone whose suffering might be alleviated because of lessons learned from our experiences?   A grade 6 kids submitted his story for our book. He wrote:
I lost everything in the fire, I lost my house, I lost my cats. I lost my gerbil. It was the worst weekend of my life. I feel bad for everyone, because if I just felt sorry for myself, I would not have learned anything from this experience. The fire taught all of us to be thankful for what we have.  
King Solomon's Seal blooming through the ashes. June 2011.