How Soon is “Too Soon”?: Southern Alberta Floods of 2013
Here in my province, there was epic flooding in the month of June, resulting in widespread damage and evacuations in many communities. The downtown area of one of our biggest cities was actually underwater for long periods.
Many reacted by expressing moral support and by giving money to aid in the relief efforts.
Some, however, also chose to raise a debate about the issues behind this disaster. For example: there was apparently a report done in 2005 about mitigation of effects of future flooding, and some are claiming it was ignored by the government.
There are also those who believe that this kind of tragedy could be prevented or reduced by paying more attention to how and where we build our homes and businesses, how human development affects such ecological factors as watersheds, and how much we rely on external infrastructure for our basic needs.
As more and more alarming news came out of the flood region, some started bringing these topics up on social media. They received some backlash from those who felt it was insensitive to ‘lay blame’ while people were suffering, struggling to meet basic needs, and experiencing loss. They were told that this was simply not the time to get into those topics – what we needed to focus on at that moment was supporting those affected.
I do agree that in times of crisis, those most affected deserve the support that they need to meet their immediate needs. I also know that the desire to help often exceeds the need for it.
So why not use that extra attention and energy to have a substantive conversation about what’s led to the crisis?
Most of the time, getting any traction for a conversation about watersheds and developmental design is tough. There is a lot that can be done to make our homes and businesses less vulnerable to natural disasters, but it’s not something most people have much time for under normal circumstances.
Another tough sell is self-sufficiency. I heard about one enterprising family that built a rainwater treatment system into their Calgary home. While their neighbours were struggling to get enough to drink and having to rely on outside relief, they had their own clean and usable supply.
But during crisis free times, how easy is it to convince most people to make this kind of investment? It’s not the path of least resistance; it seems a little extreme; it takes time and money and effort.
So why not talk about this stuff in the aftermath of a disaster, while the consequences are front and centre? About what’s behind our vulnerability to the whims of Mother Nature, and how it can be managed? About how choices at the policy level, at the organizational level, and at the individual level, affect us in this kind of situation?
Is it a mean thing to do if it involves criticizing the choices of people who are now suffering? I don’t think so. We’re not talking about withholding relief or support from them.
But if they’ve made choices that have led to the effects we’re seeing, why not name that? We talk about accountability – what does that mean, if not this? By definition, it means talking about failures and opportunities to do better. How else can we do better in future?
Maybe it would be ‘nicer’ to wait until the crisis has passed. Maybe it would offend fewer people. But that seems like a really good way to see the same tragedy play out all over again, when the next disaster hits.