Last night I woke up at 4 am again. This time I was dreaming that I was walking along Highway 63 toward Fort McMurray. There were streams of smoke rising from the burnt ground and dead animals – horses and dogs mostly – lining each side of the road. I woke up to find I was sitting up with my hand on the belly of Colt, my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, checking to see if he was breathing, if he was alive.
For those of us who have lived through a natural disaster I suppose the trauma never really goes away. I am not sure how many evacuees from High River and Slave Lake are going through what I have been for the last week, reliving my own nightmare experience. A few days ago I was telling David about my show and he abruptly said, “Stop it!” I didn’t understand why. He said, “You’re talking about Fort McMurray, but every time you mean to say fire you’re saying flood, and every time you say Notley, you’re saying Redford.” It’s been a few more days but I find myself doing that still.
For victims there are two kinds of trauma: The memories of what happened to us during the event and the memories of how we were treated by the authorities in the aftermath. Having now watched three mass evacuations up close they seem to follow a similar pattern.
The first phase of dealing with the disaster is almost dreamlike: The fact that thousands of people can make it through extreme danger with nearly zero fatalities borders on miraculous. The firefighters who are the principal first responders in both fire and flood can do no wrong. They are gods. We have no complaints.
The second phase is the restoration of order. This is where the RCMP takes the lead. Evacuating the stragglers, securing the borders, locking things down, letting residents know their property is safe from looters. They are demi-gods. We only complain when they behave badly – forcing entry into homes, busting down doors, stealing guns – but in Fort McMurray they seem to have learned their lesson. Good.
The third phase is the reassertion of bureaucracy. It starts off well enough. Evacuation centres provide food, shelter, clothing. Government arranges emergency funds. Mental health counselling is on hand. But somewhere around a week after the disaster things begin to go off the rails. The authorities tell us the danger is over, but they won’t let us go home and they won’t tell us why.
This phase started two days ago in Fort McMurray when residents were told they’d have to wait two more weeks before the government would reveal a re-entry plan. The clampdown on information is complete.
People who left their pets behind aren’t told what has happened to them. Pet Rescue started late and when the Alberta SPCA was finally let in to help they had to sign a gag order saying they wouldn’t talk about what they found for 96 hours. Is it finished? Are they finding mostly live animals? Mostly dead? We don’t really know.
Residents have been told that 2400 structures have been damaged, but no one will tell them what happened to their individual home. First they were told the delay was because authorities had to do a door to door inspection on the ground. Now that the ground search is done they are being told the government is waiting for mapping from the air. The government knows exactly which homes are destroyed. Why won’t they tell people? We don’t really know.
Residents have been told 90 per cent of the town is fine, most infrastructure is undamaged, but it will still take two weeks to figure out a re-entry plan. The government says they are basing their re-entry timing on objective criteria: Restoring infrastructure, water, power, heat, hospital service and so on. How far along are they on each one? The daily updates have stopped. Contractors are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement saying they won’t talk about what they heard in the operations centre. Why won’t they tell people? We don’t really know.
I suspect some well-meaning bureaucrat has good reasons for treating people this way. Telling people their pets are dead will cause trauma. Making public the information about damaged homes will invade privacy. Revealing the progress of restoration will make residents want to come home sooner than the bureaucrats are ready. After all, there is a welcome centre to prepare, documents to print, packages to stuff, cleaning kits to assemble.
But what these well-meaning bureaucrats don’t seem to realize is that with each passing day residents are kept in the dark and fed a line they don’t believe, marriages are getting strained, children are getting cranky, seniors prescriptions are running out, finances are getting pinched, business owners are obsessing about their bills, lives are interrupted and all of it has long-term, damaging consequences not just for families, but for entire communities.
Re-entry can really be as simple as this: Cordon off the communities that are damaged, divide the undamaged communities into zones and give each zone a time to go home. Have an official on hand to meet each family returning on the highway or at the airport to check their ID, and give them an information sheet with numbers to call if they need help. Tell people to be orderly. Trust them. But just let them go home.
As I prepared for the show again today it was with an overwhelming sense of futility. I could say on the air what I’ve written above and say it just as plainly, but I know the barrage of criticism I’ll face. Are you an emergency management expert? What do you know? No wonder you weren’t relected! You’re causing disorder! Why do you always have to complain? Why do you always have to challenge the authorities? Why are you such an idiot?
So I’ll try to find a way to be suitably deferential to the government, to the emergency operations centre, to the well-meaning civil servants. But in my heart I know exactly what is beginning to happen to residents of Fort McMurray. They are starting to be traumatized a second time, this time by their government, and that’s what is going to keep them waking up at 4 am for a long time to come.