On Monday, I got home just before the deluge hit Toronto. I watched the storm batter the city and congratulated myself on moving to a condo. No more leaky basements for me. No more backed-up sewer sludge. I was safe, secure and snug in my modern castle in the sky.
Just then, a pipe burst and flooded all the elevators. For the next day, I was trapped on the 23rd floor. I could have used the stairs to get down, but the thought of climbing back up was discouraging.
Oh, well. At least we still had hydro. Lots of people didn’t. The floods wiped out two transformer stations that serve a large part of the city, leaving hundreds of thousands of people sweating in the dark as their food rotted. The transit system shut down. The entire grid, we were warned, was hanging by a thread.
Recently, it’s begun to feel too uncomfortably Third Worldish here in Canada. Our flood-protection systems can’t protect us. Our electricity is iffy. Our roads and bridges are crumbling. Our pipes and sewers are in desperate need of repair. People in major metropolitan areas (Montreal is the latest case) are told to boil their water. And now Lac-Mégantic, an industrial disaster of the tragic scale you’d expect to see in India, not here. Dozens dead, at least partly because of an outdated rail network whose maintenance and safety systems have deteriorated just as the delivery of crude oil by tanker train has vastly expanded.
It’s enough to make you want to get out of town and head for the hills with your survival gear. Good luck with that, though – the roads are clogged. A trip that took 11/2 hours 10 years ago will now take you three. Traffic congestion is costing us billions every year, says the C.D. Howe Institute, and it’s making major urban areas like the Greater Toronto Area increasingly unlivable. Living here is swell, so long as you don’t want to get anywhere.
In the olden days, visitors marvelled at how clean and green Toronto was. Now, they marvel at the traffic jams, the crummy transit system and the decrepit parks. (We’re lucky they can’t see the sewers.) It would be nice to expand our pathetically inadequate subway lines, but we can barely operate the ones we have. According to transit head Andy Byford, parts of the signalling system date back to the days when Louis St. Laurent was in power.
Although Toronto is masquerading as a 21st-century city, a lot of the glitter is just shiny caps on rotten teeth. Other cities are no better. In Montreal, the auditor-general warns that without massive new spending, the city risks “major disruptive effects for the public.” The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that Canada’s infrastructure deficit amounts to around $200-billion. Saeed Mirza, emeritus professor of engineering at Montreal’s McGill University, has put the number at an astronomical $1-trillion.
It’s a lot like living back in my first house – the one with the leaky roof, ancient plumbing and rot in the foundations. The fundamentals are in desperate need of repair, but our leaders would prefer to paint the party room. When the sewer backs up into the basement and the ceilings cave in, they tell us not to blame them. Instead we should blame acts of God, or the next best thing, global warming, which seems to be turning 100-year weather events into every-other-year ones.
Or maybe they’ve just chosen to ignore the warnings. That’s natural, I guess. It’s hard to get elected by telling people they need to spend another $100-million to upgrade their sewers.
Yet negligence and willful blindness also play a role. Toronto’s rolling blackouts this week, which were caused by severe flooding in two crucial transformer stations, were entirely predictable. Years ago, experts warned that the network needed to be backed up by new gas-generating power stations. The plants were in the works – until the provincial Liberals decided to cancel them just before the last election. Energy expert Tom Adams calls it a “green blackout” – because the government preferred to spend hundreds of millions on trendy but useless wind and solar power, instead of shoring up the weak links in the existing system.
The damage in Toronto was minor next to the damage inflicted in Alberta, where last month’s massive flooding caused untold billions in property damage. Flood prevention, as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi acknowledges, “has never been a hugely sexy thing.” Medicine Hat, which had extensive flooding a few years ago, got $18-million in federal infrastructure funds and spent most of it on a leisure centre.
But we often make our problems worse. In Alberta, the flooding problem has been exacerbated by allowing new development in flood-plain areas. And Alison Redford’s promise to bail out absolutely everyone will not help. If you build in an area where you can’t get flood insurance, is it really the government’s job to save you?
“I blame the boomers,” said my (40-something) editor the other day, and he’s not wrong. Our parents’ generation built stuff to last. Instead of fixing and replacing it, our generation built party rooms. Sorry about that! My editor should buy a flashlight and some galoshes. He’s going to need them.