Emergencies and how we respond to them

Published Tuesday, August 5, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Several years ago, I heard a radio program that examined the concept of an emergency.  I still remember its key messages: first, in an emergency, rules, reality and priorities change instantly and, second, if warranted by the situation, an incredible amount of resources can be reallocated to solve a problem.

I pondered that a bit, and then started to notice how true it was for emergencies large and small.

For example, my son gashed his knee while we were camping in the wilderness last year.  Suddenly, my priority was not relaxation; it was getting out of the woods to a hospital as quickly as possible so that he could be stitched up.  

When 33 men were trapped in a Chilean gold mine in 2010, rescuing them became a national priority.  The effort cost millions of dollars in a developing country which no doubt could have found many other good uses for such funds, but suddenly money was no object.  It was an emergency, so everything changed.

In 1989, civil unrest broke out in Venezuela while I happened to be there on business.  Civil rights were suspended, a strict curfew was imposed and the army was brought out to restore control.  It was a bit frightening, but it was a national emergency so all the rules changed instantly.

New Brunswick’s emergency

Hurricane Arthur became the latest example of what happens in emergencies when it struck us July 5.  Never mind breakfast at the market or a day at the mall; suddenly our priorities were upended and our resources were redirected.  Generators, chain saws, water, ice and gasoline became the new must-haves; information on where they could be found became the new must-know.  I’m guessing many people who couldn’t afford a generator on July 4 somehow found the money to buy one July 6.

It is a testimonial to the decency, resilience and resourcefulness of New Brunswickers that civility prevailed and no one was lost.  Neighbours checked in on each other; generators were shared and power cords were strung across properties; those who had operating fridges, freezers, stoves and showers made them available to those who were without.

That’s a phenomenal asset we have here, because resilience, both at the individual and community levels, will be critical in a future that promises more weather events like Arthur.  (Like many NBers, I’m left wondering what happened to leadership, coordination and communication throughout this crisis.  Hopefully, a frank assessment will be made in the coming months and we’ll be better prepared next time.) 

A planetary emergency

Globally, ever more people are consuming ever more of our precious, finite resources, apparently under the comforting illusion that this – hidden behind a facade we call economic growth – can go on forever on a finite planet.  We’ve been using the air, water and land as dumps for so long that it’s now shrugged off as normal.  The weather’s getting more extreme, and May was the hottest May on record.  

It is hard to deny that we are on the cusp of a planetary environmental emergency – but it’s a slow-moving one, and not in our faces like a hurricane.  

Lessons learned

The worst of NB’s emergency is behind us.  Thanks to an instant shift in priorities and a massive mobilization of resources, most of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Arthur has been repaired.  We’ve proven what we can do when we work together with commitment and focus.

Now let’s not lose that lesson, and contemplate how we can apply it to the larger planetary emergency we face.  It too can be fixed, but it will take the kind of reprioritization and reallocation of resources that got us through our most recent emergency.