Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Best to be prepared when disaster strikes

Have a plan for you and your community

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When the phone rang at 6:45 on a Monday morning, my first thought was it was the neighbour short a recipe ingredient.

Instead, it was the local emergency committee co-ordinator. "There's been a fire at the lodge. They are evacuating residents. We need to open up the reception centre."

I was thinking, this is a drill.

But the fire commissioner's truck passed by as I pulled out of the driveway and I could see fire engines with flashing lights in front of the community's personal care home. This was definitely not one of those trial runs with the local drama club playing the role of panicked evacuees.

The local community hall was buzzing with activity, but there was also a surreal sense of calm. People, both the professionals charged as caregivers and the volunteers serving on the community's emergency-response team, knew what to do. After all that talk over the years and discussion of "what-if?" scenarios, the time had come to walk the walk.

All in all, the situation was managed with a minimum of disruption to some of the community's most vulnerable citizens, our seniors.

Provincial law says every local authority must have an emergency-response plan that is regularly reviewed and updated. For the most part, it seems like a colossal waste of time spent in meetings and discussions; it's easy to yield to the temptation toward lip service or to put those backup generators over to next year's budget.

But given some of the weather events we've experienced lately, this community exercise in expecting the unexpected should be a high priority.

The scenarios most often in the back of our minds are weather-related such as blizzards, ice storms and tornadoes. It might come as a surprise to some if people passing through a jurisdiction become stranded in a storm, private businesses aren't obligated to look after them, but local authorities are.

Hundreds of Manitobans have been confronted with violent weather this summer, forcing them to run for cover or seek shelter. But it could also be a train derailment, or as in my community's case, a fire forcing a large number of people from their homes.

Many areas, both rural and urban, have experienced flash flooding this year -- hard to imagine out here on the bald, flat prairie. But with precipitation events becoming more intense, it has become a real threat all the same.

These weather patterns bear an eerie resemblance to what computer models suggest our weather might do under a climate-change scenario. The evaporation from melting Arctic ice is increasing the moisture in the atmosphere. What goes up must come down, and it is doing so in torrents.

The province has seen two fatalities on washed-out roads this year. Other lives were threatened after their vehicles were stranded in fast-moving floodwaters.

So how ready are we as communities and as individuals? Those disaster plans and their community-response committees exist in rural areas, but how many people in the community are familiar with them? Who gets called in if the people assigned to be serving in specific roles isn't around, or if their ability to serve is compromised due to the disaster?

Does the location designated as the reception centre have working phone lines that can be used for long-distance calling? Or Internet access? We found out ours did not.

How do you get replacement gasoline for emergency generators and emergency responder vehicles if a power outage makes gas pumps inoperable? Who do you call for emergency food supplies after hours? How do those businesses get paid? Where is the duct tape?

And what about our personal "shelter-in-place" plans? How many of us keep an emergency water, power, heat and food supply -- enough to tide us over for a recommended 72 hours in the case of a catastrophic event?

If you haven't checked out this federal website, make a point of going there, studying the recommendations and developing a plan for your own family:

It's just like insurance; you make the investment hoping you never have to use it. But when you do, it's nice to know it's there.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 B9

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