Disaster strikes

If something like Hurricane Irene had hit Toronto, or Montreal, or Calgary or Vancouver, would we have been ready?

I know, I know. Toronto, Montreal and Calgary are sufficiently inland that any hurricane would have a difficult time causing the damage Irene did in places like New York City. I know.

But, as I and countless other Canadians drove out of various U.S.-based vacation spots this past weekend — hurrying to avoid Irene’s promised destruction — it was hard not to be impressed by the Americans’ preparations for what could have been the biggest hurricane.

On New York’s interstate highway, as we headed west, countless electrical crews and military personnel whizzed past, heading east. In coastal Maine, where we had spent a few days, pre-hurricane preparations were under way long before Hurricane Irene started her devastating journey up the coast.

Everywhere in New England, storeowners were seen taping or boarding up windows. Homeowners were doing the same, and bringing inside anything that could be blown away in winds gusting up to 150 km/h. And federal, state and local authorities were working in tandem, relentlessly communicating what citizens and businesses should do to protect life and limb. It was very, very impressive.

Mainers — like their Atlantic Canadian cousins to the north and east — were their usual stoic selves, unflappable about what was to come.

Recent evidence suggests that when it comes to disaster preparedness, we’re perhaps not as prepared as the Americans. Or, at least, not as prepared as we should be.

In the 2009 H1N1 crisis, one misadventure seemed to follow the next. The nadir came in the early days of the public health crisis when, instead of providing a Manitoba native band with the H1N1 help they’d requested, the federal government sent along body bags. (Yes, you read that right).

Or, before that, the 2003 SARS outbreak in Ontario, which devastated the province’s tourism industry and cost businesses untold billions. An inquiry into the way government handled SARS showed the “system is broken,” wrote Justice Archie Campbell — and the provincial government’s response was “woefully inadequate.”

Walkerton, Ont., Alberta’s Slave Lake fire. The annual Manitoba floods, particularly this year’s. In every case, some level of government or the other is found to have dropped the ball — either by being unprepared for predictable events, or by being completely flummoxed by events that were unforeseen.

The Americans aren’t perfect, of course. The terrible damage caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina showed the Bush administration’s response to be somewhere between ruinous to non-existent.

But, in the main, the events of 9-11 forced the U.S. to do what we, mainly, have not: Develop a national, comprehensive and integrated disaster preparedness capacity.

Earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes and public health crises aren’t a uniquely American phenomenon. They happen here, too.

This week, Hurricane Irene reminded everyone what Americans can do, when they pull together. We need to do likewise. And we need to do so well before the next big disaster happens.

Not after.

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