Thursday, September 01, 2005

Katrina a preview of our lives after the ‘Big One’

VICTORIA - Take a long look at those pictures from New Orleans of weeping, lost people trying to figure out what’s left for them.
It could just as easily be Victoria, or Vancouver.
I’ve been watching the news, and like many people wondering why the richest nation on Earth has been doing such a poor job of responding to a foreseeable natural disaster.
Everyone knew that Katrina was coming, and that it was a fierce storm. They had days to prepare.
More importantly, everyone has known for decades that at some point a really big hurricane was going to sweep in off the gulf.
But knowing isn’t enough to make people act, to take the long-term steps needed to be ready for the feared big one, or to have the short-term relief plans in place.
I sat outside a pleasant bar in Algiers a few years ago, across the river from New Orleans. It was right beside the Mississippi, but there were no views of the water, or the ships and barges shuffling past. The river was being held back by a 10-metre berm that ran as far you could see. It’s surface was far above our heads as we sat and drank the local beer.
It was slightly unnerving, even on a sunny day. A hole in the levee and all the water in the river would spill into the country - and keep flowing until everything for a huge distance was under metres.
That’s what happened.
The levee system’s failure is no big surprise. The dikes were supposed to be able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane - though experts questioned even that prediction.
But it was a certainty that some day, a more powerful storm would hit.
And Katrina did.
Just as one of these decades a big earthquake - or a small earthquake, dangerously close - will strike along B.C.’s coast.
Most of the people in New Orleans literally couldn’t imagine the destruction of their city by a storm. Neither could the government officials responsible for preparation.
Just s we can’t imagine seeing large parts of Victoria or Vancouver devastated by an earthquake.
But the worst case scenarios for B.C. are as frightening as anything coming from New Orleans. Imagine, says the experts, a situation in which transportation was impossible and power and water services non-existent for hundreds of thousands of people.
Figure thousands homeless - perhaps in a cold, rainy January - and food supplies running out. And accept the reality that the scale of the disaster would swamp our ability to respond quickly and effectively. We don’t have the ability to set up tent cities in every park, or feed the people who may have to live there for months.
In short, imagine something much like New Orleans, without the water but with the rest of the dislocation, suffering and fear.
It is difficult for any government - and for most individuals - to balance today’s pressing needs against the importance of preparing for a disaster that may be a century away.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which maintains the system tat protected New Orleans, has been asking for more money to fix problems. Its 2004 funding request to improve levees around Lake Pontchartrain was cut by 80 per cent. The government had other priorities.
Here in B.C., the government faces similar pressures. Improving schools’ ability to withstand earthquakes would cost about $1.5 billion. The government is committed to spending an extra $80 a year for the next three years on the problem, and hopes to complete the upgrades by 2020.
Too slow, critics say. But it’s tough to justify tax increases, or cuts to the health budget, to pay for faster progress on earthquake protection.
And it’s tough to gripe about government delays when most of us have done little personally to prepare.
Katrina’s an awful reminder that even remote threats deserve attention when their consequences are so terrible.
Footnote: Another lesson in the perils of procrastination. Paul Martin delayed calling George Bush to talk about the softwood dispute for weeks. The call was finally scheduled for Thursday, and Bush had understandably no interest in anything beyond Canada’s willingness to help in the Katrina aftermath.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting the potential horror of our seismically unsafe schools, Paul. Imagine the horror of New Orleans, except that 80% of the dead are our school-aged children and their teachers, because schools were the only public buildings that we "couldn't afford" to reinforce expeditiously.

You're right in that it's not easy to justify tax increases to pay for it, but what about the $2 billion surplus last year? What about all the windfall profits that the province is now raking in from oil and gas? I'm not suggesting it should all go to seismic upgrading, but surely there's a very good argument for applying some of the windfall/ surplus to expediting that task.

(By the way, Seattle did just that, I believe - they introduced some sort of special levy and today they finished upgrading all their schools.)

And in Louisiana, there are already early grumblings blaming President Bush's cuts and his rerouting of federal dollars to anti-terrorism for the failure to repair the aging levee system and prevent the disaster that everyone knew was just waiting to happen.

A lesson that the folks in Victoria should heed carefully.

RossK said...

I have also been to Algiers....for very different reasons (felt a need to see where Old Bull Lee spent so much of his time and where Kerouac and Cassidy got stranded)....and I too could not see the River, but did see ships, which was even more bizarre because they seemed to be levitating 30 feet up in the air.