The Ottawa Flood: A Slow Disaster and Its Even Slower Response

The Ottawa Flood: A Slow Disaster and Its Even Slower Response
Posted on May 10, 2017 | Valarie Findlay | Written on May 10, 2017
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Op-Ed

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

"The sky is falling ... the sky is falling!" - Chicken Little

Unlike the popular parable, Ottawa's dire situation last week (and this week, with more to come) wasn't conflated fear and panic and in our crisis, Cocky Locky, Drakey Lakey and Turkey Lurkey weren't eaten by Foxy Loxy. Instead they were told to BYOS (bring-your-own-shovel) and start filling those sand bags ...

(Pic: High ground on Carp Ridge, Saturday May 6, 2017)

In mid-April the Ottawa River was rising and by early May it was still rising at an unprecedented rate. By May 4th, areas were already flooding and it was abundantly clear Ottawa was in for a hefty load of rain that, at that time, ranged from 15-20mm.

While residents did what they could, recognizing there were going to be problems, it is now clear we rely far too much on our current City officials to alert and assist when a crisis is on the horizon. One has to wonder, what were they doing and what they were thinking, as the alarming weather reports and river level data came in early May.

Exactly how much notice does this City administration need of an impending disaster? Because the problem with disasters is, they rarely send you a notice prior to their arrival. The flood threw many red flags and in retrospect it's a good thing this was a slow moving disaster and not a Fort McMurray wildfire. Because if this is the level of emergency response and leadership we can expect from the Mayor and the councillors of affected areas toward a relatively slow moving disaster, I can't imagine what the losses from a sudden, rapid disaster would be. Oddly, the City seems to pride itself on its Emergency Preparedness processes detailed on its website; Step 4 says: "Learn about your Community Emergency Plans, Arrangements and Authorities". Little evidence of Step 4's existence emerged last week.

I've seen my fair share of well-written and well-executed disaster, emergency and continuity plans and all have similar key factors: critical asset identification (what needs to be protected most), execution (what are the conditions that constitute a disaster or emergency), monitoring and projecting (how bad is it and how bad can it get), and most importantly, communication and action plans with contact names and delegates. Real people who put these plans into action, who are accountable and responsible from the moment a disaster is declared (not a state of emergency, that we never reached apparently). They do the prioritizing and dispatching to the affected and high-risk areas, in order to contain and mitigate further damage. Standard stuff, but operationally absent in this recent crisis.

In Ward 5, on May 4th Eli El-Chantiry felt it was totally appropriate to transfer responsibility to a resident who had stepped and volunteered (and did an amazing job with what little experience and resources that she had) as coordinator. Days before this, we all knew massive rainfall was days away, but where was El-Chantiry? According to his Tweets he was in his warm, dry office marvelling at the PoutineFest setup while residents were filling bags with sand. Why wasn't he proactively enacting Step 4 of the City's grand plan ... and marshalling the City's emergency planning resources and getting sandbags in place before the flooding got worse?

Its no wonder in the aftermath, people are angry and frustrated with being left on their own to manage an unmanageable and emotional situation for days. And its no wonder they are questioning the competence of those elected officials who failed to act in a timely matter, which could have averted substantial loss for so many. Utterly unacceptable. No matter how many times the Mayor espouses the pride he feels in seeing neighbours help each other, he cannot escape the truth of the matter: they didn't have a choice. The City was not there to assist in the days before the deluge of rain and they weren't there during and after, calling in experts: military, city crews, disaster crews from utility companies and private companies. Every resource should have been deployed.

Whether or not these residents were on a flood plain or not, had insurance or didn't, isn't even a consideration when people are in need. These people were losing their belongings, their place of security and comfort, their homes; something they likely worked for all their lives and still haven't paid for. At the end of the day, this City's administration has its priorities completely backwards; the Mayor takes high-fives on his "innovative" ideas and making Ottawa a "world-class" city but the validity of a city's innovation is firmly planted in how it treats and cares for its people, their safety and quality of life and the pride they have in their city.

Maybe this "road of Abilene" that the Mayor has had us on for years will turn into our "road to Damascus" - an epiphany and a turning point. What many have been seeing and feeling for many years is frustrated disappointment - frustrated, because many of us know what this city was and disappointment in what it has become. What we saw last week, that was not world-class. It was low-class. Clearly, the tolerance for incompetence starts at the top in this City and it has systemically spread, affecting all City services. And this needs to change.

But for now, forget about the Mayor's lack of presence and leadership. Forget about city inspectors showing up at a Relief Center to remove homemade food that people brought in to help others. Forget about ** El-Chantiry bemoaning the loss of his "home" (that is a rental cottage) to the media, in front of some who lost everything. Forget about the water contamination and sewer overflow into the Ottawa River, thwarting earlier efforts to clean up the Ottawa River. Forget that the much-opposed storm water fee will likely vapourize in the wake of this disaster for decades to come. Forget about all that ... until you have that voter ballot in your hand in 18 months from now ...

In the meantime, do what you do best and what Ottawans are known for: be kind and compassionate and help your neighbour. At least the Mayor got that part right.

My prayers go out to all of those affected and my fingers are crossed with hope that nothing else happens while this City gets its priorities in order.

 

El-Chantiry told CBC News his own home "up the road" was also under more than a metre of water. "It's so hard to see people's life savings, people's homes [lost]. On the other hand, we're thankful no one got hurt. We managed to get people out that need to be out," said El-Chantiry. "I'm one of those people, also," he added. "We're no different from the rest of the folks here." Article Sub-Head: Councillor's own home under water as flooding hits west Ottawa neighbourhood -  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/constance-bay-flooding-ottawa-el-ch...

Update: On May 10 at the Constance Bay Flood Info Session, El-Chanitry made it a point to clarify that his "own home" that he lost was not his primary residence as he had asserted in the above interview, but is investment property.   

About The Author

Valarie Findlay holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrew's and her dissertation, "T... More

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