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Opinion: The fine art of preparing for an emergency

Aug 14, 2023

Vicky Mochama is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.

I misplaced my wallet the other day.

As a problem facing the world, it's hardly worth elevating to a crisis, except that I had officially sanctioned reasons to do so.

Last week marked Emergency Preparedness Week, a government week-of-note that, considering all that we’ve been through – a pandemic, supply chain crashes, interest rate hikes, a tiresome recurring debate about what the passport looks like – should have come with at least one day off. But, alas. Nothing for our sacrifices. Not even an afternoon off.

In British Columbia, they decided to spice up their EP Week with a theme that I’m nominating as a new family motto: "If you’re ready for an earthquake, you’re ready for anything."

The preparation steps that they outline are more or less what you’d think. Have an emergency kit of clothes and supplies, create a plan with the people you live with, and failing all that, "Drop, cover and hold on!" If that sounds like you’re rather on your own in B.C. when the ground starts moving, you’ll be relieved to know that there will be a national early warning system "coming soon."

As wildfires rage in northeastern B.C. and Alberta, it's hard to think that there could be yet one more catastrophe in store, but for the federal government, an earthquake is first on their list of concerns in a document they launched called the National Risk Profile, which is a sort-of horror novel for the insurance set. Gather ye close ‘round the fire as I tell you the The Tale of how "55 per cent of people living in British Columbia are uninsured, whereas up to 96 per cent of people living in Quebec do not have earthquake coverage."

It's even scarier when the document notes that a 2013 report "estimates that a severe earthquake in British Columbia – 9.0-magnitude – could result in $75-billion in losses and a similarly probable event in the Quebec City-Montreal-Ottawa corridor could result in $61-billion in losses." Those poor sweet losses; my heart goes out to them.

Still, as I scrolled the document, I was struck by the lack of practical advice for communities. What of my relatives and friends? Was I simply supposed to take my emergency kit and go off to the next collection point to await the helicopters? What kind of colonial every-man-for-himself only-the-strong-survive hellish nightmare of an emergency were we being prepared for?

But the general spirit of the week did give me an idea. If the state was practicing its emergency responses, so should I.

For two hours this week, and unbeknownst to them, I ran an ad hoc emergency drill among my network. Some people have video games where they lord over island nations, others have miniature train yards, some buy Twitter or take up knitting. We all have our little hobbies.

This week, I suddenly found I was without my wallet. Quickly, I drafted a simulated scenario. In reality, I had plans to meet a friend who I could rely on for at least a coffee, so I was well taken care of. On Instagram, however, I was hours away from my wallet, sans digital options on my phone, had a dress covered in coffee and was scheduled to meet a date in T-minus two hours.

On their own, none of these could be said to constitute an emergency in the distinct and precise parlance of emergency managers, but based on the probablistic modelling I will not do, this should classify as a 1-in-every-35 years event causing significant disruption and probable losses. Likely to result in evacuation.

The first offer of help arrived from a woman who offered a change of clothes she keeps at the office. An hour later, another friend asked what she could do to help. Shortly after, a fellow Gemini (and thus a perfect person) insisted that my fake date cover the cost of my existence but nonetheless offered to provide me a way home. Concern and advice peppered my Insta messages. In the face of the extreme danger of someone being suddenly and somewhat uncomfortable, a community of support quickly coalesced.

Privilege haunts my exercise, of course; if all we have left is Instagram Stories, the end is surely nigh. But stories, cries for help really from within capitalism's crises, are everywhere.

A cursory look at GoFundMe's health section reveals deep cracks in what is assumed to be a stable foundation. On social media, queer communities plead for support in the face of a crushing homophobic legal onslaught and moral panic. Food banks across the nation bear part of the weight of many households’ intimate economic crises, and even they are warning that it may not be enough.

So, how do you prepare for an emergency?

Maybe you pack an emergency bag. Maybe you practice. Maybe you draw on the collective ingenuity of your communities.

Failing that, drop, cover and hold on.