The Times Colonist by Robin Cox 27 January 2011
Twelve-year-old Martina Maturana saved the lives of her family and her neighbours because she knew exactly what to do when one of the biggest earthquakes in Chile’s recorded history rocked her community last year. Ten-year-old Tilly Smith saved her family and hundreds of other tourists on the island of Phuket because she had learned to recognize tsunami warning signs in geography class at school.
Would your child be able to do the same thing? Would you? The statistics aren’t encouraging. A study released in 2008 suggests that the answer to that question is a resounding no. Canada and Canadians are not prepared for disaster.
On Wednesday, the Great British Columbia ShakeOut occurred — a province-wide earthquake drill designed to raise awareness, educate and motivate people to get better prepared for earthquakes and other disasters. Just over 10 per cent of British Columbians participated in the ShakeOut. That means that almost 90 per cent of us did not.
In the past 70 years, more than 100 earthquakes of magnitude five or greater (large enough to cause damage had they been closer to land) have occurred off the coast of B.C. When the Cascadia subduction earthquake occurs, the “big one” we’ve all been told will happen, thousands may be injured or killed and residents living along the Island’s west coast may have as little as 20 minutes to evacuate before a tsunami hits — residents in Victoria and Vancouver as little as an hour and a half.
We have heard it all before. It’s not if it happens, but when. Despite that, most of us remain unprepared. A national survey found that the majority of Canadians are not concerned about disasters and have made few, if any, preparations for one. Of those that have prepared, most have engaged in what can be described at best as random acts of preparedness. Only eight per cent of Canadians have all the safety items recommended to be in emergency kits.
When you ask people why they don’t do more about getting prepared, most will tell you the same thing. They don’t have time. They don’t know what to do or where to get information about what to do. They are counting on governments and other organizations to be prepared and to let them know what to do when it matters.
Except here are some dirty little secrets that those of us working in this field know:
n The people and organizations you are relying on will also be overwhelmed and many of them are not prepared, either.
n We don’t have plans for how we are going to shelter hundreds or perhaps thousands of people displaced by an earthquake.
n We don’t have adequate plans for the thousands of frail elderly, many of whom have limited mobility and dementia and who rely on caregivers for their basic needs.
n Most of our disaster shelters have no capacity to meet the needs of those with physical or cognitive disabilities, or those who have chronic mental-health or medical problems. Nor are there any concrete plans for how to help those people access help.
According to a recently released survey of 44 voluntary-sector organizations serving high-risk populations in Canada, 24 per cent of them have reported having no emergency supplies. And they cite the same reasons we give — a lack of money and time.
But here is another secret: it’s not going to happen without us.
Being disaster-resilient relies not just on emergency plans or better building codes.
It isn’t only the responsibility of governments, although they have to be held accountable to addressing the real gaps in planning that exist.
Disaster resilience also relies on us. It arises from our willingness to believe it can happen, and our readiness to affect the outcome. It’s about the quality of the neighbourhoods, communities and organizations we create, our connections with each other and our capacity to help others because we are prepared.
We are disaster resilient. Tilly and Martina knew that and they were ready to act from that place. What’s your excuse?
Robin Cox is a professor in the Disaster and Emergency Management program at Royal Roads University. She is a disaster responder with B.C.’s Disaster Psychosocial Services and a member of the National Emergency Psychosocial Advisory Consortium.