You are hereHome ›
Crisis & Recovery AAMDC Speech
Good morning. As I prepared for this address a million thoughts and memories filled my mind. There is not enough room in the Shaw Centre for the emotions – fear, shock, uncertainty, compassion, admiration, affection, gratitude – that this topic causes for me. No leader likes to feel fear, shock and uncertainty. We all should work every day to be compassionate. But during the events of May 2011, and in fact in the six months since, I have become really comfortable with admiration, affection and gratitude.
You always think of your neighbours as the people who live beside you or across the street. As an elected official, that expands to include your constituents; some of whom you get to know really well – not always for friendly reasons! But what our residents discovered this spring is that our neighbourhood is huge.
We are no strangers to fire in the north. We expect them, we prepare for them, and we fight them. When fire threatened to destroy our communities in May, Albertans responded. Our regional fire department and firefighters from Sustainable Resource Development mobilized as they always do. But there were three fires in the area and on Sunday, nature threw us a curve. A combination of a dry spring, our boreal forest and winds that blasted to 100 kilometers per hour, raising 4-foot waves on the lake created a perfect storm. You’ve seen the pictures, and I’ll show you more in a minute. Most of the media coverage focuses on Fire 65, which began in Mitsue in the MD and surged west through our Poplar Estates development, and ultimately into the Town of Slave Lake. But fire 56 to the south was far bigger, and threatened numerous smaller hamlets on the south shore of the lake. Firefighters, Emergency Services, Alberta Emergency management and Canada Task Force personnel pointed their vehicles north and rode to our assistance. At one point, we had almost 1,300 people reporting to and working in the Emergency Operations Center we set up.
At the same time, residents in Athabasca, Westlock, Edmonton and countless others welcomed our citizens to their communities – 10 to 15 thousand evacuees! What great neighbours. And after the emergency, people from all across Canada opened their hearts and wallets, sending clothing, furniture and cash – close to $5 million and growing. What great neighbours.
There were other neighbours we didn’t know. This is important for every municipal official to understand. When the extent of our fires became apparent, our Premier Ed Stelmach was quick to act. As John noted, he declared our region a high priority and committed the resources to help us. This wasn’t politics, this was real leadership. I think of Ed Stelmach as my friend now. He came to Slave Lake, he surveyed the damage, and he ensured we had strong partners like Hector Goudreau, then Minister of Municipal Affairs and our point man in cabinet, and Tim Grant, who knows how to operate in an unstable and changing situation. Hec mobilized other Ministers and their staffs, and Tim worked the system that he knew well as an ADM to help us start to see beyond the here and now. Those three new friends, Ed, Hec and Tim mobilized a well-provisioned army to help get us back on our feet and capable of even thinking about how to tackle the job ahead of us.
Karina will talk to you about capacity issues, social issues and what the word recovery really means. But I have to say right now, and this is something every elected official and every citizen of Alberta needs to know: if you’re in trouble and you don’t have any idea where to start solving it, you couldn’t live in a better province. We could not have fought the fires, brought our people back, developed interim accommodation and begun to rebuild our communities without the huge contribution made by our government. They provided people, materials, logistical support, and of course, money. But most of all they provided a steady hand and HOPE. That has been a real eye-opener, and I don’t think any other province or state in North America could have done it as well, and as quickly. I can’t begin to express how grateful we are.
Now I’m a Reeve, so I know what you’re thinking. Every dollar that went to the Town, the MD and the First Nation is a dollar that didn’t come to your municipality. And all that departmental support probably diverted some attention from your issues. That’s probably true, and I sincerely thank you for putting up with that, and being patient with our region. But I’ll assure you of two things:
- We won’t abuse that privilege, and we will respect that the help we have received to date came from Alberta taxpayers. We will be accountable for the support we received to regain our position as a prosperous, growing – and contributing—region of Alberta.
- When you get knocked on your backside, we’ll be there, supporting the Government in coming to your assistance. We know first-hand what neighbours mean when you’re in trouble.
I’ve had to watch the video I’m about to present a few times before sharing it with you, because it brings back memories and it still shakes me. No amount of planning or drills can prepare a Council or a community for the physical and emotional impact like the 2011 Wildfires.
We have learned a great deal so far from this experience, and Karina will share more with you. The fact is the Recovery job remains so big, and our capacity so strained, that we haven’t formally gathered to document those learnings. But people keep asking, and I know this audience is no different.
I’ve already shared the fact that all of us in this room live in a great neighbourhood. Don’t forget that.
Secondly, and Colin will talk more about this, we have tremendous emergency response support in this province. I saw issues resolved, solutions devised and decisions – great decisions – made in a frightening, pressure-cooker environment. When we needed fuel, we got fuel. When we needed and airplane, we got one. When we needed food, we got ham sandwiches. I’ll never eat one again, but we got lots of ham sandwiches when we needed them. It was an amazing experience.
But the caveat on that is that elected officials must be responsible and accountable. And disasters like ours are expensive. I would suggest that every municipality assign someone to keep track of the bar tab while everyone else is ordering! I hope you never need this person to actually work in an EOC, but if you do find yourself fighting an emergency, it will save a lot of time and effort afterwards to have a step-by-step accounting. As the video states, we were spending an average of $1.5 million per day. It took us months to sort out and account for the approximately $20 million dollar tab. When fire is burning your britches is no time to ask “what’s this going to cost?” But sooner or later, someone will ask you why you bought blue jeans and for how much?
Another learning is that this was a life-changing experience. I hope you don’t have that experience, and I hope I don’t have another one. But the emergency response from our community and from all of you who joined us was amazing. The resiliency of our people in the Town and MD was inspiring. The innovation displayed to clear debris, establish alternate and temporary housing for one to two thousand displaced residents while we rebuild is incredible. Our enemy was weather – floods in the summer slowed us down, and while it held off a bit, winter was our deadline.
This has taken a toll on our people. Everyone was impacted. Cherished items were lost. Some people relocated. Routines changed. Work expanded.
But other interesting changes occurred in the make-up of our community. There are many examples, but I’ll just give you an important example. Well, important for me. I’ve never been a hugger. I don’t like it. The first person to hug me in the EOC – she’s here today – says I was stiff as a board. But you know what, we do a lot of hugging now, and it feels normal. That said, I don’t want you all trying to hug me today. I may be irresistible, but I am the Reeve of MD 124!
But seriously, my colleagues on the Tri-Council, the MD staff, and our residents never signed up for this. Who could imagine on May 14, that sunny clear day that our lives would change so dramatically? Who could contemplate the devastation we’ve shown you today? Who could have warned us there was no rule book for recovery -- or that we’d have to write one? Who could expect that when challenged, people would step up? Who could imagine so many new friends, brought together by disaster?
And what elected official could expect, and receive, so much from municipal councils and staff? Everyone still has the job or jobs they had on May 13. But since then, and I know Karina will agree with me, we’ve asked them to take on the additional job of recovery. And every day, that job changes, and it sure doesn’t shrink. People have stepped up, and we’ve all witnessed people going the extra yard to not let the team down.
It’s not true that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I think that “that which doesn’t kill you makes you tired.”
With that, I’d like to acknowledge the incredible efforts of my colleagues on the Council and Staff of the MD of Lesser Slave River to stand and be recognized.
- Economic Development
- Fire & Protective Services
- Human Resources
- Planning & Development
- Public Works
- Assessment & Taxation
- Bylaw Enforcement
- Family & Community Support
- Health Care
- Mapping & Geographics
- Waste & Recycling
- NEWS & EVENTS
- VISIT US
- CONTACT US
- SITE MAP
- CRISIS & RECOVERY
- Disaster Timeline
- Emergency Operations
- Evacuation Efforts
- The Aftermath
- Ongoing Recovery
- Planning for the Future
- Multimedia Library