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Disaster Preparedness

The recent earthquake in Haiti and its impact on life in that country gives us an opportunity to review our own situation. It is easy for us to dismiss any comparisons between the reality of what is happening in the western hemisphere’s poorest country and what the impact of a similar disaster might be in our communities. It can’t happen here!!! That’s one example of deluded thinking that is a one-way ticket to disaster, whether it be a natural disaster affecting an entire region or something that occurs within the four walls of your own business.


February 23, 2010
By Paul Dixon

Topics

The recent earthquake in Haiti and its impact on life in that country
gives us an opportunity to review our own situation. It is easy for us
to dismiss any comparisons between the reality of what is happening in
the western hemisphere’s poorest country and what the impact of a
similar disaster might be in our communities. It can’t happen here!!!
That’s one example of deluded thinking that is a one-way ticket to
disaster, whether it be a natural disaster affecting an entire region
or something that occurs within the four walls of your own business.

What is a disaster? It can mean many things to many people. There is no
argument that the situation in Haiti is a disaster, even a catastrophe.
The minimal levels of service and infrastructure that did exist have
been destroyed and in many instances the people in government and the
civil service who were in leadership positions are among the dead.
Transportation and logistics are a nightmare. As hundreds of extremely
capable rescue and medical personnel arrived in the country along with
thousands of military troops, it became apparent that there was no
co-ordinated direction on the ground, resulting in a piecemeal ad
hocresponse from the disparate groups.

Can this happen in today’s Canada? Most emphatically, yes! While not
every region of this country is threatened by an earthquake of the
magnitude that rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, every community in Canada faces
threats from one or more natural disasters that have the potential to
inflict as much damage as the earthquake in Haiti. Changes in weather
are bringing storms of a magnitude never seen before. Hurricanes are
moving farther up the Atlantic coast. Tornados pose threats to Ontario
and across the Prairies. Extreme flooding from increased runoff and
heavy rainfalls, counterbalanced by extreme drought and higher
temperatures later in the year, are leading to increasing threats of
wildfires and interface fires.

One great difference between the current situation in Haiti and what
could happen here is the level of infrastructure development,
especially in communications and utilities. Our reliance on technology
in every facet of our lives makes us extremely vulnerable to any loss
of service, especially electrical. Electricity powers our world and,
without it, we are in the dark, figuratively and literally. The
blackouts of recent years in Ontario, Quebec and the northeastern
United States are just a hint of what the future could look like.
Instead of hours, imagine the impact if the electrical grid were down
for days or weeks.

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Three years ago, metro Vancouver was swept by a series of wind storms
that toppled trees by the hundreds across the region. While the damage
to Stanley Park received the lion’s share of the media spotlight,
little was mentioned about the municipalities in the region that lost
their ability to function when the lights went out. Inadequate backup
power meant servers were down and also that recently installed IP phone
networks were useless. While staff could be relocated to other
facilities, they were unable to access servers remotely. It also meant
that local residents were unable to phone city hall for directions or
assistance.

Two years ago, an electrical fire in an underground utilities vault in
downtown Vancouver left BC Hydro customers in a four square block area
without power for four days. No big deal, you say. One of those clients
was a third-party data processing company that acts as the gateway for
credit and debit card transactions for thousands of merchants across
Canada. As long as the power was out in this one little pocket of
Vancouver, thousands of businesses across the country were effectively
shut down.

No one died and no buildings were blown up or fell down, but the impact
on the downstream users relying on the disabled technology was
potentially as devastating to the business community as anything that
has happened in Haiti. As a culture, we have fallen victim to the
Rescue 911 syndrome. Something bad happens, 911 is called, help is on
the way within seconds and it arrives before the commercial break. No
matter how remote the locale, the rescuers always have the right
equipment and the rescue is made before the second commercial break. No
one dies and everyone lives happily ever after.

It doesn’t happen like that in real life and it certainly is not going
to happen like that in the wake of any sort of regional or national
disaster. To be a survivor you have to be prepared now; for your
family, your business and your future. If you don’t do it, no one is
going to do it for you.


Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.


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