Calgary's Rough Ride Through The Emergency Laws

It has been a rough ride in Southern Alberta as the floodwaters subside and the damage becomes visible. The shock of seeing beautiful inner city neighbourhoods in Calgary left looking like war zones as a result of the sludge and mud is indelible. This surreal vision is mirrored by the unusual emergency laws in place during the flood and only recently lifted in Calgary.

Indeed Calgary's municipal bylaw requires the state of emergency to expire no later than 14 days after proclamation, unless the emergency is a pandemic, which expires at the end of 90 days.  Of note is Toronto’s emergency response to the SARS epidemic. The critical review of the response has shown endemic weaknesses in the system, particularly the health care system, which has become a lesson learned for other municipalities.  

As in a time of war, the emergency measures grants the province, municipalities (see Calgary’s emergency management bylaw here), and even the Federal government extraordinary powers. Even though the state of emergency has ended in Calgary, the municipal emergency management plan or MEP is still in place to ensure a smooth transition from immediate emergency to rebuilding. For example, the emergency management plan has been used by the City to bypass the usual red tape of municipal development rules to re-zone swaths of land for possible areas for temporary neighbourhoods for those without shelter and housing alternatives.

Calgary's plan also permits enhanced coordination between agencies through an implementation of three phases: response phase, local authority recovery phase, and community restoration and rehabilitation phase. The response phase, activated during the initial event, is for immediate response and mitigation. This would cover the first two weeks of the state of emergency. The second phase overlaps with the response phase as it ensures critical needs are met and bridges the immediate with short-term needs. Again this phase would have started during the two-week period that Calgary was in a state of emergency. The last phase, for rehabilitation and restoration, focuses on the long-term. The operations also transform during this phase shifting as they turn from an emergency operations centre (EOC) to a recovery operations centre (ROC). Clearly, Calgary is presently in the second phase of recovery and preparing for the rehabilitation phase.

In addition to the coordinated efforts through CEMA (Calgary Emergency Management Agency), there are emergency rules in place for businesses and other organizations, which handle sensitive documents. For example, the Law Society of Alberta sent out a newsletter during the flood to advise lawyers on disaster recovery including information on what to do if client and accounting files are water damaged to managing practice interruptions. The CBA (Canadian Bar Association) also has similar information.

Although, the local media has focused on information about the municipal emergency powers, and to a certain extent, the provincial powers, there has been scant discussion of the federal government’s role in disaster rebuilding. The federal government too has many laws, which they can utilize, when an emergency or a disaster strikes. These laws add support to the Ministry of Public Safety, now headed by The Honourable Vic Toews. The difficulty with this umbrella approach to disasters, such as in the Alberta flood, is the lack of focus on natural disasters in favour of a scheme, which can apply to all disasters including a terrorist threat. Of course the other difficulty with the Federal response is the slowness: funds pledged to support the disaster areas are often slow to come and as a result may be too little too late.

The main response tool is the Federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements or DFAA. New guidelines were revised in 2008 to provide disaster relief to provinces and territories. Although, the principles of the program suggest the primary organization responsible for relief is the provincial government, the federal program is available for “support” or enhancement of the provincial efforts. The program does not, except in certain circumstances, apply to the fighting of forest or grass fires. There is a threshold monetary amount, which when exceeded triggers the federal “cost sharing” program. The program is announced in accordance with the Emergency Management Act and usually requires either a provincial request or a federal determination that assistance is needed through an Order-In-Council.

The Act was implemented in 2007 to “strengthen emergency management in Canada.” Despite this, past disasters in Canada have shown that the federal government’s response, unlike the municipal response, is slow. Of special concern is the lack of a federal mitigation strategy, which may result in funding for the infrastructure for disaster prevention as opposed to disaster relief. This is in stark contrast to the federal government’s response to international disasters, which have been touted as a global model. On the other hand, the provincial response many critics say has been excellent during this flood mostly due to the Premier’s stance on relief. Unfortunately, the quick provincial response this time has much to do with the provincial lack of response with the Slave Lake fire last year. Fortunately, the province reviewed the response and the nineteen recommendations implemented as a result of the review enhanced the provincial reaction and made it possible for flood weary Albertans to move forward.

Today, as the Stampede festivities go on and the City rebounds, there is much to still do. A recent torrential downpour re-flooded some flooded out areas reminding us of the fragility of our successes. A look to our neighbours – High River and the Siksika Nation, remind us that we are still not out of the water yet. Hopefully, all communities will receive the governmental support they need in the days and months to come.