Disaster researchers are troubled by one thing more than anything else: It seems that communities that experience disasters rarely learn from them.
No matter how well they handle a specific incident – and often they respond very effectively – they don’t apply the lessons learned, and they don’t revise their plans so they are better prepared the next time.
That explains why my chapter in an online book on the Canadian disaster experience was titled, sadly but accurately, “Lessons Never Learned.”
Admittedly, that is not always the case.
Winnipeg learned from past flooding that it would be wise to build a special canal or floodway to carry rising river water safely past the city. That has proved invaluable.
California has learned to build new buildings able to withstand earthquakes and to retrofit older buildings to do the same. If California were hit by an earthquake equal in magnitude to the one that decimated Mexico City in 1985, the damage in California would be far less and the death toll minimal.
Further, effective response can reduce at least the human if not the physical impact of an emergency. Medicine Hat, for example, used past flood data and current river-flow data to predict the probable extent of its recent flooding, and evacuated appropriately.
Given that, it is important in the wake of an incident such as the tragic one in Lac-Mégantic to ask: What could be done to avoid future similar tragedies?
Sadly, the answer is, probably – not very much.
Many Canadian communities – places like Smiths Falls in Eastern Ontario and Chapleau in Northern Ontario and St. Thomas in Southwestern Ontario – were built as railway centres. The community grew up around the tracks.
Even when this was not originally true, it became true. The area around Mavis and Burnhamthorpe Roads in Mississauga – where a train derailment forced the evacuation of 217,000 people in November, 1979 – was not nearly as heavily populated then as it is now.
Of course, sometimes a warning allows time to react.
That is certainly true for most floods and most tornadoes. Some recent excellent U.S. research shows that tornado warnings are most effective when they come less than 15 minutes before impact. If they come earlier, people start to think the threat is over and leave their shelters.
Even if people react to the first shaking of an earthquake they have time to dive under a bed or table or take other potentially life-saving action.
But that was not the case in Lac-Mégantic.
The victims of the train derailment were local residents enjoying a quiet evening in a location where they had no reason to fear they were exposed to any threat.
The train cars took off down a slope and even through a few people saw them moving there was no time to warn anyone before the cars derailed, caught fire and started exploding. In any case, those who saw the cars moving had no reason to believe the results would be so devastating. It’s doubtful anyone would have believed them and fled if they had phoned in a warning.
Even when there is a warning it is not always communicated effectively. When a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, and spilled anhydrous ammonia, the train crew immediately alerted local emergency agencies; but the public warning system failed almost completely and when a warning was put out, the advice was misleading.
When a warning is sounded it may not be believed. The sailors from the Mont Blanc – the ship that blew up in Halifax harbour in 1917 – tried to warn of the danger their ship posed. That warning fell on deaf ears partly because they were shouting in French – and few of those who heard them understood French – but more importantly because no one listening had any grasp of the ship’s lethal cargo. Instead of taking shelter, most people watched as barrels of gasoline exploded in a miniature fireworks display before the ship itself exploded with one-seventh the power of the first atomic bomb.
There is another problem.
Those who work in chemical plants usually deal with one or at least very few chemicals. They know the dangers involved and they know how to respond. Occasionally there may be complacency but generally the track record is a good one.
The situation is very different when a transportation accident occurs. First, any number of chemicals may be involved. In Mississauga in 1979, the derailed train was carrying chlorine, toluene, styrene, caustic soda and propane, any one of which would have constituted a major threat. Second, it is necessary to rely on the expertise of what in many communities is a volunteer fire department with limited experience.
So what are the options?
One might think that it would be wise to reduce the number of freight cars carrying dangerous or flammable chemicals. That is easier said than done. Those materials have to move somehow and the risk would not change much if those materials moved by road instead of rail.
The obvious solution – or so it would seem – is to move rail lines away from populated areas. This seems logical but it would be expensive and, perhaps, counter-productive.
In Mississauga in November, 1979, when propane cars exploded and took off like missiles, they flew into empty field. No one was hurt by the explosions. Today that same area is heavily occupied, and the burning propane cars would smack into buildings. No matter where rail lines are located, eventually people catch up.
Of course, even when we know the solution we often don’t implement it. It was obvious in the wake of the 1998 ice storm that it would make more sense to bury power lines rather than rebuild them where they were subject to another ice storm. But that solution was expensive and time-consuming, and the lines were restored as they were.
Equally disturbing is the fact that usually no matter how tragic an incident, people tend to restore and rebuild rather than relocate. My guess is that just as the people in Calgary and High River are moving back into their homes on the flood plain, the people in Lac-Mégantic will rebuild their shattered community and carry on in the hope what happened will never recur.
That hope probably makes more sense in Lac-Mégantic than in Calgary or High River.
Train derailments are not rare, but ones with such devastating results as in Lac-Mégantic are very rare indeed. Staying put is probably a safe option. In contrast, the only question about flooding in Alberta is when, not if.
Joseph Scanlon is Professor Emeritus and Director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University. He has been conducting disaster research for 43 years. His published research includes a book commissioned by the Canadian Police College on the 1979 train derailment that led to 217,000 people being evacuated from Mississauga.