Marie’s family openly laughed at her. Why, they asked her, was a large box labelled Emergency stored in their basement? What could possibly go wrong in Canada’s largest city? At that time, she and her husband and two children lived in Toronto.
She had the last “laugh” almost 20 years ago today when on a hot and humid August afternoon in 2003, right before rush hour, all the power in the entire city — indeed, all the power in Ontario, Quebec and eight U.S. states — vanished within 90 seconds. Every streetlight, every subway car, everything powered by electricity was affected. Offline. What had started as a problem in Ohio cascaded through the entire network. More than 100 power plants were knocked off the grid; 50 million people were left without power.
Anyone who has ever driven the Don Valley Parkway or any of Toronto’s main streets can conjure up the nightmare of every intersection being a four-way stop; every white-knuckle experience magnified. One newspaper would describe the event as “civilized chaos.” That was being kind.
But in Marie’s house, the emergency box containing flashlights, batteries water, food, candles and a host of other emergency essentials was brought upstairs.
Nobody was laughing. They aren’t today, either, as Canada seems to be on fire and cities are being evacuated, some not for the first time. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the enormity of it all, but my question is: why are we never prepared for the inevitable, for the emergency? We weren’t prepared for the Calgary flood of 2013; for the Fort McMurray disaster; for what is happening today as the world seems to be burning up.
In the great Calgary flood, nine mountain creeks swollen by the melting snowpack burst their boundaries. In Lac Des Arcs, Heart Creek — normally not much more than a babbling brook — took out the bridge and the Bow River into which the creek flows, carved away a chunk of its bank. Further west, Cougar Creek raged through Canmore. When the flood finally cleared, there was an “edict” that nobody should be allowed to build on a floodplain. The more sarcastic of us remarked that all of downtown Calgary is on a flood plain. Mitigation work continues to this day.
The odds would have said Marie would never need her emergency supplies. But when the impossible happened, she was prepared. It’s a lesson for all of us. Yet how many Canadians are learning?
We respond to so-called “natural” disasters with help, hope and heart. When Yellowknife had to be evacuated, the offers of assistance and immediate aid were rapid.
This response should not be a surprise. It’s the opposite of a natural tendency known as the amity/enmity complex, which was popularized by Robert Ardrey in his 1966 book, The Territorial Imperative. Ardrey did not discover or name the complex, but he made it understandable to the non-scientific mind.
Simply put, it is the imperative that separates humans into “us” versus “them.” In its ugliest form, it is the complex that fuels racism and bigotry; that discriminates against the disabled and gay, lesbian and trans people and all the crude business that sets us against people we don’t see as being part of our tribe. It’s why we gather to protect ourselves against an invader and when an outside threat is vanquished we go back to bickering among ourselves; we go back to being complacent.
But at its best-face-forward complement, we help each other without questioning when there is an identifiable hazard. We are incredibly generous, open-handed and open-hearted when there is a real threat. We open our homes to complete strangers. We will shelter the suddenly homeless and supply them with life’s necessities without looking for compensation. It’s one of the characteristics of a caring society.
But I find it curious and disturbing there is little compassion shown by so many of these generous citizens toward the homeless, the marginalized, the sick and addicted who are always with us, living on the edges of our consciousness, camping rough in parks and under bridges, seeking shelter in public spaces.
We don’t see them as being part of “us.” We too often perceive a threat and want police presence in LRT stations and shopping malls. Where is the generosity of spirit and humanity for them?
While we pack an emergency kit, maybe we should first pack a sense of generosity for the marginalized among us.