Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Victoria's master of disaster

Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 14, 2008


The wounded moan from beneath plastic sheets. They wait for help along the roadside, miserable in the rain.

Other victims are trapped by the rubble of fallen buildings. The front page of this newspaper yesterday showed a man pinned like a butterfly in an entomologist's collection. One of his rescuers, holding aloft a bag of saline solution, stood atop the beam that pinched his right leg.

No food. No water. No power. Little hope.

Rob Johns studies these images of misery. Much can be learned from the aftermath of China's earthquake and in the wake of the cyclone and storm surge that devastated the country formerly known as Burma.

He seeks inspiration from the horror.

Mr. Johns, 41, is a family man whose calling it has become to prepare the British Columbia capital for such an eventuality.

He is the city's master of disaster.

Central China and coastal Myanmar are distant, but Victoria's emergency co-ordinator knows distress overseas might some day make our own tribulations easier.

“Those are faraway places,” he acknowledged, “but because of the business I'm in, I take immediate notice.”

Some of us reach into our wallets when disaster strikes. Mr. Johns takes notes. He wants to know what works and, more importantly, what fails as emergency workers try to deliver aid.

Two years ago, he travelled to New Orleans to view the devastation following the landfall of hurricane Katrina. He toured the flooded Ninth Ward, then travelled to Biloxi on the Mississippi coast. Five months had passed, but the land looked “like it had happened yesterday. The damage had not been cleaned up. Debris was still in the streets.”

He could not help but overlay the damage he saw on the Gulf Coast onto a map of Vancouver Island. Imagine an area stretching from Parksville to Victoria, ranging inland as much as five kilometres, completely destroyed. That's what he saw.

Mr. Johns came to emergency preparedness as a volunteer. In 1996, after the blizzard that paralyzed Victoria, he helped out as a radio operator. He even shovelled snow from roofs when senior citizens called for help.

After nine years as a volunteer and eight as an emergency manager, he knows how important it is to prepare. He has grab-and-go kits in his office at the Yates Street fire hall, as well as in his car. His home kit includes enough food and water to supply himself, his wife and their eight-month-old daughter for more than a week. He has not forgotten to supply their cat and dog.

Mr. Johns lives day to day in a different fashion than the rest of us. A pyramid of boxes at the grocer is a reminder that more earthquake injuries are suffered from objects falling on people than from buildings collapsing.

Even a near miss provides a lesson. Seattle school officials were pleased many of their students ducked beneath their desks when an earthquake rattled the region four years ago. They had been taught to “drop, cover and hold.” Some forgot the last bit, however, and wound up exposed as their desks jiggled away.

Many of us feel immune. Why?

“The place obviously works. Our roads are good. Hydro rarely goes down. We get insulated. We get accustomed to those things being available. We don't have any memory of a disaster.”

He encourages people to stock supplies and to make themselves familiar with the resources offered by the city.

Maps are available showing areas in which the ground is made of sand or fill, which are most likely to suffer damage in the event of a major earthquake. Another indicates the low-lying coastal areas of the city most endangered by a tsunami. (Memo to self: Avoid the Inner Harbour.)

The city also sponsors regular workshops. Sometimes, the sessions attract as few as a half-dozen citizens.

The one scheduled for last night at the Burnside-Gorge Community Centre had 35 names on the sign-up sheet. Misery begets company. Bad news overseas today may save lives here in the future.

A long journey

The Komagata Maru is in the news this week, as the federal government prepares to offer apologies for the treatment of passengers turned away from British Columbia waters 94 years ago.

The Japanese steamer arrived at Vancouver harbour on May 23, 1914, with a load of immigrants, most of them Sikhs. Officials refused to allow most of the passengers to disembark and the boat remained anchored as conditions deteriorated. The arrival of a naval cruiser finally forced its departure after an eight-week standoff.

Hard feelings culminated in the assassination of a man who had spied on local Sikhs. He was gunned down in the halls of the courthouse in October. Bhai Mewa Singh was hanged for the murder on Jan. 11, 1915. He is still regarded as a martyr in the Sikh community.

A forgotten part of the Komagata Maru episode is the role played by an immigration inspector named Frederick Wellington Taylor, who was one of the officials who barred the passengers. Fred Taylor was more familiar to hockey fans as Cyclone. Two months after the execution, his Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup. The city hasn't reclaimed hockey's storied trophy in all the years since.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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