Saturday, June 22, 2013

Alberta Floods and Human Resilience

As we catch our breath and begin the task of rebuilding in Calgary and Alberta after the worst floods in our recorded history, many of my colleagues have reached out to me and pointed out that I seem to always be in the middle of the action.

In reflection, they are right.  I’ve been in cities during the worst earthquake in their recorded history, had a tornado touch down a block from me while out for a walk in the rain, filmed another one forming directly overhead that left me seeking cover and arrived in a city days before one of the worst hurricanes in its history.

I watched the World Trade Center burn from around the corner of my office in New York, taking the lives of 15 of my friends and now I find myself in Calgary watching the worst flood in its history.

As I thought about this, I also reflected on being in the middle of all of those events and never suffering a scratch.

Well … at least not physically anyway.

I will admit that as the list of events grows longer, the visceral, emotional impact grows with each one when I watch the innocent and the helpless suffer.

There are two other emotions that grow as well

One is that my respect and gratitude for first responders; police, fire, EMS, military and all those who coordinate their efforts, grows deeper with every event.  I am reminded yet again of the love, the bravery, the unselfishness, the teamwork and the spontaneous leadership that is demonstrated when these events unfold.  Watching the men and women in action over the last couple of days in Calgary and Alberta makes you want to run over and hug one, take them out to dinner on-the-spot or express thanks in any way possible.

It is deeply humbling to know that a complete stranger is willing to put their own life on the line for our safety, even as their own family and property may be in jeopardy … and all without a tangible reward or prize at the end for their efforts outside of the pride they feel in knowing that they got the job done that they have spent a lifetime training for.

Sometimes, as in the case of the fire company that I used to walk past every day going to work that was completely wiped out in the World Trade Center, you don’t get to say thank you when the event is all over.

Not in this lifetime anyway.

The other emotion is one of growing concern.

In a world that is at its peak in known history in the areas of technology, communication, transportation, food production and other areas essential to human safety, I believe we are also at our most vulnerable point in our history.

In the comfort that many of us live in, we as individuals are the least prepared in our known history to take care of ourselves and those around us.  We have become a society that relies on the bravery of strangers.

We also rely on technology that may not be there to help us as I mused upon the other day in Disaster: How Prepared Are We Really?

Sadly in today’s world, when people like myself or others muse upon the need for citizens to be better prepared for emergency, whether a natural disaster or a manmade one, we get chided for being a downer or for being crazy.  We also draw attention from certain enforcement agencies who think “Oh … what is this guy participating in?”.

Even blogs as benign as this one will draw extra blog hits from some of those special agencies.  It can be discouraging for some to know that the act of being prepared for disaster can be misinterpreted as preparing to create one.

I mused to someone yesterday that roughly 10% of Calgary’s population needed to be relocated while the other 90% was able to help.  Where would we be if those two stats were reversed?  How well would things have gone if communication or electricity had failed totally within the last couple of days?

As usual, we pat ourselves on the back regarding our ingenuity and prepare to move on, falsely claiming that it was pretty much under control and that we were never in any real, large-scale danger.

Also as usual, our confidence would be diminished if we acknowledged how lucky we were.

Being prepared is not the same as being paranoid

Well … for most of us anyway. :-)  Some people are over the top and I think this discourages other people from being prepared for fear of being associated with “the loonies”.

There are many fine organizations out there who specialize in helping people prepare for disaster.  Governments also have a wealth of information available for us to learn from.

One thing that history teaches us is that disasters are inevitable.  Governments and other agencies spend a lot of time and money planning to prevent or survive them.  Having sat in on many of these planning sessions, I know that citizens would be disturbed to learn that in the government planning sessions, governments have the difficult task of accepting that they can’t save everyone and they build their plans accordingly.  It would be equally disturbing to know which camp, saveable or not, each of us are considered to be in.

The least we can do for ourselves, our families, our community, our nation and the world is to do our best as individuals to prepare for them also.

And in the meantime, find a first responder and give them the biggest thank you that you can muster.

Because for now, their bravery and sacrifice are what transforms disaster into miracles of rescue, into stories of hope and the promise of a better day.

We don’t overcome this stuff because we are Calgarians, Albertans, New Yorkers or anything else.

We do it because we are human and when the chips are down, overcoming difficulty is when we are at our finest.

Let’s do our part to make sure that the next test of our resilience is not our last.

I’d like to close with Adam Sandler’s song that he sang at the 121212 event after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey and the surrounding area.  Sometimes humor can carry you through difficult moments when you wonder if you have anything left.

Warning: “Delicate” language. :-)

For people who ask “what are the odds this could happen to me”, for those who have experienced disaster, the answer is 100%.  And as one fire chief joked on the radio yesterday, in his five years as chief, he has experienced “the flood of the century” each of the last four years in a row.

How prepared are you in the event of disaster, manmade or otherwise?

What does the answer to the previous question compel you to do, if anything?

In service and servanthood,


Addendum – June 24, 2013

As is often the case, in the event post mortem that is starting to develop we discover that the Alberta flood event didn’t come without some warnings in the past as noted here.  The government study with recommendations described in the news report was released after the last major flood event in Calgary in 2005.

Maybe we need to pay more attention to such warnings.  Unfortunately, when it comes to such things, when balancing risk versus cost, we usually accept the risk.  Sometimes we get lucky – sometimes we don’t.

I am reminded yet again of the words of my former father-in-law (now deceased), a decorated USAF colonel and war hero.  In 1991, he told me that within circles of senior military officials and advisors to the President, the greatest perceived threat to national security were terrorist groups commandeering commercial aircraft and using them against domestic targets.  What ensued 10 years later changed America and the world forever.

We acted surprised then also.

Addendum – June 25, 2013

From the “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing” department, Alberta Environment Minister McQueen indicated today that the province will not consider restricting new development on flood plains at this time.  While it is too early to decide what restrictions should be in place, it is also too early to say that they will not consider restricting it.

If such an intention is carried out, new development replacement is condemned to be carried at the expense of the insurance companies (should they decide to offer flood insurance) or the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

And a future flood disaster is a “when” and not an “if” if other risk mitigation strategies aren’t put into effect.

Addendum – July 14, 2013

The Province of Alberta has released new information regarding the Disaster Recovery Program which I believe represents a balanced, intelligent approach to covering people against losses moving forward and basically provides what the auto insurance industry would describe as “first accident forgiveness”.

Basically if the homeowner accepts compensation now but remains in a known flood risk area, they are ineligible for compensation against future incidents.  If a homeowner is in a fringe flood area, accepts compensation now and chooses not to take appropriate risk mitigation steps to protect against future loss, they are also ineligible for compensation against future incidents.  Finally, homeowners seeking to move out of high-risk flood areas will be provided with financial assistance to move to a safer area.

Fair – balanced – forward thinking.

A rare move from any government and deserving of kudos.

Addendum – July 28, 2013

Sadly, many people who are not in designated flood zones got wiped out and are in danger of being wiped out in the future, leaving a gap in the Disaster Recovery Program that needs to be addressed.  These residents want the right to be relocated since the flood zone maps are clearly out of date.  Can you blame them?


  1. Harry, I know there is no coincidence to your viewing, recording, sharing and drawing information from each of these real and horrific events. Very few things in this life are as random as they appear (as you well know). I for one am thankful that you have the depth of experience and a level headed and calming demeanor to assist, record, challenge and serve. Instead of screaming "the sky is falling" you have openly shared and discussed our genuine and real need to connect before we are strangers meeting in a disaster and support those who may be in a position to save us and to reflect on our lack of self-reliance.

  2. Thank you for your kindness, Kathleen - create a great day!