Yesterday, an earthquake struck Quebec and Ontario, the Pickering nuclear plant leaked radioactive water, and a toxic cloud from an Ottawa fire started drifting towards Montreal.

Meanwhile, we are transfixed by Japan’s triple disasters. Thanks to the reporting of Henry Aubin (“Exploding the nuclear myth”) and William Marsden (“Gentilly 2 reactor sits on fault line”), I found out that Quebec wants to renew the Gentilly-2 reactor.

The same government planning nuclear reactors also plans our disaster response. What could possibly go wrong?

There are skills mastered in three occupations — firefighting, nursing, and social-justice organizing — that are critical in preventing, preparing for, and responding to a disaster. Regrettably, these are not the people currently handling our disaster response, but they do provide examples of what works.

Firefighters are trained to rapidly respond to emergencies with a self-contained command and control structure, equipment, and flexible infrastructure. After Hurricane Katrina, forest fire organizations ran the camps, hosting the disaster responders. The Illinois Disaster Management Assistance Team (DMAT), based on fire-fighter management, organized an emergency hospital in a sports stadium.

Nurses are trained to provide expert health practices and healthcare to a variety of people. Nurses are the principle coordinators of health-care systems within hospitals.

Social justice organizers ensure that the most disadvantaged are not especially victimized from disasters. They fight the “shock-doctrine” policies that unscrupulous officials try to implement whereby a disaster is followed by greedy private takeovers of public institutions and property. Activists take action before-hand to prevent potential disasters. They jump political obstacles and provide low-tech direct-action to meet current needs. In New Orleans, social justice organizers set up emergency community healthcare, food, materials and recovery infrastructure before the government did, and then turned them into community institutions.

I would add a fourth element: religious and community organizations. These are self-organized networks whose members know each other, and can easily mobilize to act in all phases of the disaster.

Lessons of typical disaster responses

Natural disasters teach us that high-tech infrastructures fail. We forget how to function in a primitive environment. Government staff and security forces are empowered, but ill trained. In North America, they have a political agenda oriented for terrorism disaster response at best, and treat disaster survivors as the enemy at worst.

While governments have the tremendous resources needed for disaster response and recovery, they often sub-contract services to large corporations that deliver little for the enormous profits they reap. Many NGOs and religious organizations leap into disaster zones to boost fundraising and membership, but have no accountability.

Disaster plans don’t exist or are secret. The evacuation vehicle is the private car. First responders are not trained for actual disaster conditions. Coordination tends to be absent or chaotic. No wonder people become distrustful, apathetic and angry.

Yet effective government disaster management is possible — it is achieved frequently in Cuba with their cyclones and hurricanes.

What could a commonsense response scenario for a disaster at Quebec’s Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor look like?


• The reactor shouldn’t have been built on an earthquake fault line. Now with the choice of extending the reactor’s life for $2 billion, we should demand its decommission, using the savings to provide safe, renewable energy from wind, solar, and water sources.


• Good planning, public organization and communication are essential. All households should have hand-crank powered radios and disaster guidelines. People living near a reactor need specific safety gear and evacuation possibilities.

• Mobilize the tremendous amount of goodwill among people after a crisis. Believe me, people want to help, so command and control operations need to take them into account as part of the available resources.


• Bus, train and even ship operators would have been previously organized for mass evacuations.

• Fuel and service stations along the evacuation route will be provided.

• Road engineer crews are to be prepared to repair or build roads, bridges and docks.

• Shelters for people’s pets will also be provided, because many people will not evacuate if their pets are left to die.

First responders:

• Basic organization of civil response teams would be in place, equipped with essential gear. Their skills range from healthcare, search and rescue, engineering/construction, transportation, food and shelter, communications, etc.

• Providing drinking water and safe shelter is more critical than food for the first week.

Secondary survival needs:

• Private residences and hotels outside the disaster zone along with schools and community centres would be enlisted to take in evacuees.

• People will coordinate information of who is being evacuated to where, who is injured or dead, helping reunite families, and getting assistance.

Long-term recovery:

• Policies must be democratically decided by those affected. After Hurricane Katrina, continuous battles ensued when poor and African-American evacuees found themselves exclude from reconstruction plans made by a political establishment intent on keeping them from returning.

• Ensure those now unemployed are hired first for the recovery and reconstruction jobs created by disasters.

• Service and recovery contracts which can be in the billions of dollars, should be directed towards local economic re-development, rather than given to outside contractors.

• Contrary to cynical assumptions, disasters can either be prevented or better managed. Only an informed public can demand improved plans to lessen their tragic consequences.

Scott Weinstein was a first responder and health-care manager after Hurricane Katrina and Haiti’s earthquake, and wrote about the latter for He also provides disaster management consulting.