Disaster politics and the floods of 2017

Disasters are tests for political leaders: are you imaginative, generous and strong enough to lead a people who can overcome these trials?

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (C) helps fill sandbags after flooding in Terrasse-Vaudreuil, Quebec, Canada May 7, 2017. (Adam Scotti/PMO/Reuters)

It was billed as a “spontaneous stop.” On Sunday May 7, as the great floodwaters of 2017 were still rising, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a group of politicians visited one of the devastated regions west of Montreal, Terrasse-Vaudreuil. It was a simple photo op, just Trudeau helping to fill sandbags. The PM tweeted out a picture and kept a low profile. Of course, the stop was anything but spontaneous; it was carefully planned down to smallest detail, but Trudeau, acutely aware of the challenges of disaster politics, knew he had to be careful. Disasters are leadership moments, but sometimes, less obvious leadership is more.

Show too much exposure at the site of an emergency, and a leader risks appearing to exploit the tragedy for political gain, scoring political points on the backs of suffering Canadians. Practically speaking, a grandstanding politician can also get in the way of the urgent work being done. For a PM who’s been criticized as being the Sultan of Selfies, this was a real danger for Trudeau, so he wisely avoided it. When Stephen Harper met the people fighting fires in Kelowna in July of 2015, he was criticized by some for taking them away from their work as a kind of pre-election stunt. By contrast, two years before, in 2013, Harper handled the massive floods in Calgary, where his wife Laureen was busy volunteering, exactly right. He visited the Emergency Operations Centre and got the balance of empathy and support right.

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By the same token, too little presence and a leader can look out of touch and cold. Every politician remembers how Hurricane Katrina drowned George W. Bush’s Presidency, his response not only slow and clumsy but ultimately deadly. When he finally deigned to go to the scene, it was in that infamous Air Force One fly over, where Bush literally looked down on the people of New Orleans.

Outside of the modest tweet trip, Trudeau smartly let his minister of public safety, Ralph Goodale, be the face of the government response during the flood. Goodale is as stolid as a prairie grain elevator. His years in government and opposition, and his resilience during a dubious 2006 criminal investigation into income trusts, have weathered his political ambition into the genuine element of public service best seen during a time of crisis. When I spoke to him that same Sunday morning, he made several announcements about tripling the military presence in Quebec to help out, and spoke prudently about the response to the situation in Ontario, New Brunswick and B.C. Goodale let the key information out without a scintilla of self-aggrandizement, text book stuff and exactly why Goodale is in his job.

READ MORE: It’s time we stopped paying for your river view

It wasn’t until May 11, as the waters began to recede, that the PM finally took a helicopter tour of the devastated areas in Gatineau Quebec—was that a bit reminiscent of Bush’s flyover? It’s a disingenuous stretch to think so. Trudeau went on the ground with the premier of Quebec to survey the damage, but by this time the municipal and provincial leaders had already made their presence felt, so Trudeau wasn’t jumping any political queue. In any case, it was judiciously timed, especially as real questions about the federal government’s disaster relief support are now being asked. The truth is, the challenges of recovery from this flood go up every day the water goes down. Trudeau was right to be there.

The reality of the flood damage in Quebec alone is stark: 4,141 homes damaged by the water, some beyond repair. Many people do not have what’s called “overland” insurance”, so they will lose everything. The scope is overwhelming. I walked through one particularly hard-hit area, around the cross-streets of Saint Louis and Moreau in Gatineau, where the homes were skirted with brown water up to the window sills. Boats were being launched where the road turned to river so people could check on what was left of their homes. About 200m down river—there is no other way to describe the road, with the faint yellow road line slowly blurring into the deep water—an orange pylon appeared to almost float magically on the surface. A closer look revealed it was actually sitting on the roof of a submerged car, placed there so the passing boats didn’t hit it. The car had literally become a shoal.

On dry land, the media mingled with the residents, some still bringing out precious items. One man passed by carrying his cats in a cage, on his way to stay with friends until he could figure out what to do next. He lived on the second floor of a house, but there was no way in any more.

WATCH MORE: What you need to know about the Quebec floods

The human stories are endless. With 173 municipalities now having to deal with the impact of the waters and more than 3,000 people evacuated, the daily frustrations and costs are going up. The infrastructure damage to more than 554 roads is extensive, but even that is hardly on the radar screen yet. The waters will recede and so will the media coverage, but it will be like a curtain being pulled back to reveal the true extent of the damage.

I spent much of Monday at the Campeau Arena in Gatineau, where more than 1,200 volunteers came to fill sand bags. Families with kids as young as five and six lined up to help, small shovels digging into giant piles of sand on the rink floor. Adults piled the heavy sandbags on palettes as fork lifts moved others outside onto trucks to be transported to flood zones. Suddenly, at the signal of the local organizer who stood in the hockey announcer’s booth, everyone suddenly reassembled into a giant human chain, passing sandbags in snaking lines outside to the loading area. It looked like a flash mob scene, only there was no dancing, just the choreography of helping hands. Tens of thousands of bags were filled, stacked and delivered by total strangers. There was coffee and donuts and sandwiches, all donated. City officials were there working alongside everyone else. The atmosphere had a barn-raising quality to it. That elusive notion of “community” that pundits often bemoan has disappeared in a world atomized by social media and secularism, but here it was, shimmering in the dusty arena air, packed into those green nylon bags, heavy and solid, an idea of who we are as a people that was powerful enough to stop a flood, or at least push back against it.

It is that same idea that all politicians chase and try to harness but, at the same time, fear. The spontaneous generosity of spirit, the innate resilience of people transcends the daily pettiness of political division, it makes partisanship look small and cheap, reveals some leaders to be nothing more than preening narcissists thinly disguised as empathetic helpers. A disaster like the floods guts communities—there is no way to pretend otherwise—but it also reminds us that we are more than the sum of our own complaints, that we are bigger than the voter charts in which politicians divide us by categories: gender, lifestyles, beliefs and income. We fit those categories sometimes, for sure, but—and this is the point—not all the time. Not here, in Campeau arena, not at the corner of Moreau and Saint Louis or in Kelowna where they are digging out of the landslide or in New Brunswick. For that matter, we don’t fit those categories at times almost every day, when we deal with sick parents or help our kids with homework, or just sit back and take a few seconds for ourselves.

Sometimes it just takes a disaster to remind us of this—that somehow, all together, we are actually something quite grand as a people. As a country. And that grandness starts on the ground, one shovel at a time, and scares the hell out of politicians to see it so majestically revealed. They know it is, in the end, much bigger than them, it can swallow their visions, which are often too small, too mean, too hollow. It doesn’t mean politicians don’t have a critical role to play in responding to a disaster. They do. And in the past week, they have all done a commendable job helping—politicians of all parties and all levels of government. So have the men and women in the military who deserve our thanks. This is not about being petty. But the real leadership has come from the people in the flood zone itself. It has been astonishing to see.

The flood of 2017, like the Fort Mac fire of 2016, or the countless disasters that will confront us in the future, are tests for political leaders: are you truly imaginative enough, generous enough, strong enough, to lead a people who can overcome these desperate trials? A disaster will expose this quickly. If you live up to the inspiring deeds going on all around you, you have our deep thanks, and maybe even our vote. If not, get out of the way. You are not needed. Whatever the crisis, we got this.

SEE: Photos from the Quebec floods