Alberta wildfires on the evening of May 4, 2016. Photo by Chris Schwarz, courtesy the Government of Alberta.
Beloved children’s television personality Fred Rogers shared his mother’s advice to “look for the helpers” when viewing frightening or upsetting images on the news.
While primarily aimed at children, this advice can help adults put tragedy in perspective too. When people see their friends, neighbors or fellow citizens suffering as the result of a disaster, many are willing to go above and beyond to offer whatever help they can, whether shelter, food, clothing or medical supplies. And today’s technology is helping people get that help where it is most needed, as we can see in the ongoing aftermath of the wildfires that devastated Fort McMurray.
The community, which is located in the Wood Buffalo municipality in Alberta, Canada, found itself in the path of a blaze that ballooned to an estimated 10,000 hectares (about 24,700 acres) by the fourth day; in the week that followed, the area would more than double. The fires are expected to cause more than $9 billion (Canadian, about $7 billion U.S.) in damage. Canada’s largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail, reported that more than 80,000 people evacuated from Fort McMurray and the surrounding area. As of last week, there was little indication when they will be able to return to evaluate the damage and, perhaps, rebuild.
While the tireless work of emergency responders may have saved a great deal of the city, many families will be displaced for weeks to come, at a minimum. This is where old-fashioned compassion has met modern technology.
For those evacuees unable to stay with friends or relatives, social media helped make connections with strangers willing to open their homes. A public Facebook group was one venue where hundreds of Canadians, in Alberta and elsewhere, were able to offer space for evacuees. A man in Edmonton, the city to which many evacuees were relocated, listed his home on AirBnB for CA$1 per night for families with pets.
The government is leaning on technology too, in its efforts to secure housing for those who can’t yet return to Fort McMurray. In a press conference, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley urged evacuees to register online with the Canadian branch of the Red Cross, which will help government agencies evaluate the need for housing. Iveson noted that many Edmonton landlords had stepped forward to offer free or reduced rent to people who had been displaced.
The outpouring of support for Albertans forced to evacuate in the face of the wildfire is heartening. But it is not the only, or even the biggest, example of strangers opening their hearts and homes. In the U.S., perhaps the best example may be the way civilians stepped in to help in a variety of ways after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The Census Bureau estimated that over 400,000 people were displaced by the 2005 storm.
While government responses to Katrina have been criticized, there is no argument that a huge number of volunteers, from nonprofit organizations to private individuals, stepped up to help shelter the evacuees. Many people took to Craigslist and other websites with offers of places to stay and other support in the immediate aftermath. Habitat for Humanity volunteers built and repaired hundreds of homes in the years following the storm, and volunteer collective Common Ground built and continues to operate homeless shelters in the city. Palisades Hudson’s own Ben Sullivan attended Tulane University when the disaster hit, and spent the first half of his senior year at Southern Methodist University in Dallas – one of many schools that opened their doors to displaced students from Tulane and other New Orleans colleges. Volunteers have remained committed to helping rebuild New Orleans, years after the disaster.
When we identify with people who have lost everything in a disaster, we are often eager to give what we can, even though the victims are strangers. It is much harder to get people to empathize with those they see as “other.” From the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s to the migrants desperately trying to rebuild some sort of life in Europe today, when we see people suffering as an amorphous “them,” we may say their losses are a shame, but we are often slow to offer substantial help.
In a large and sparsely populated province like Alberta, people identify easily with their neighbors, even if they have never met them. I’d venture to guess that many of them might be more apt to describe themselves primarily as Albertans than as Canadians. It comes as no surprise that Edmonton and other communities have opened their arms and their homes to the people of Fort McMurray.
It will take a long time to rebuild that northern city, which sits just about the end of the road heading toward the Arctic Circle. Depressed oil prices and environmental objections to development in the oil sands won’t help. It also remains to be seen how much help will come from Alberta’s newly elected liberal government, which is much less friendly to the hydrocarbon industry than its predecessor.
In the meantime, virtually all of Fort McMurray’s evacuees are sleeping under a sound roof, whether in the homes of friends or family, in a donated apartment or in a stranger’s spare bedroom. Considering the suddenness and scale of the disaster, the helpers accomplished no small feat.