Crisis management: access to information is essential


In a crisis, we all need to pull together.

The morning of Wednesday, May 3rd, my phone buzzed at 7:17AM with an early text message. It was from a journalist, asking me if I was aware of the flooding on De Gaulle street in Pierrefonds and whether I’d be available for an interview.

Flooding? It must be bad if he was texting me this early for an interview. And yet, water levels had been high for weeks. Spring floods are nothing new to the west island; low points in roads along the riverfront are often dotted with deep puddles; low-lying parklands become marshes, tree trunks rising from the pooling water.

This was different.  Just getting to the street in question was a challenge as the Pierrefonds / St-Jean central axis of our borough was flooded and cordoned off. When I finally arrived, a man in a boat was rowing slowly along the street. Journalists were standing waist-deep in water, giving live clips to morning news programs. Others were in their cars, trying to warm up before venturing out for another interview. 

A group of residents stood huddled together, in a state of bleary-eyed shock rather than panic. They had been awakened the night before by the rising water and were trying to come to grips with the situation. Still no city workers in sight, although the fire department was there, patrolling the area, making sure everyone was safe.

Before going on camera, I approached the group and asked them how they were doing. Mostly they were still trying to register what had happened. “It all happened so fast,” one man kept saying, slowly shaking his head. They described how the water had come up over the makeshift dike 100 metres upstream and had flowed down the streets, flooding the whole neighbourhood. One woman was worried about retrieving her computer, “All my research for my doctoral thesis is on that computer,” she said nervously.

And then I had to go on camera. No briefing. No preparation. No information on why this was happening now. Where was The Plan? The Crisis Management Plan? Somebody must have it. But not me, and yet I was the first one there, standing in front of the cameras.

All I could talk about was preparedness, and crisis management and how partisan politics gets in the way of these essential elements of municipal governance. If there was a plan, I certainly wasn’t privy to it. Indeed I had asked, a short time after my election, whether we had a crisis management plan, to which I’d received a paternalistic patting down: We do, and you don’t need to see it.

This is where I now stand firmly: Information must be shared. Transparency is the only way to ensure that situations will be dealt with swiftly and competently. It is an outrage to our democracy that newly elected officials do not get a full briefing on all the various aspects of local governance, ongoing operations, upcoming projects, and, yes, crisis management planning, just in case.

That any elected representative should have to stand in front of a resident and say the words, “I don’t know, that information was not shared with me,” is just wrong. We are elected in order to be able to represent citizens, who have neither the time nor the inclination to follow every decision that is made municipally. And in order to represent them effectively, we need to have access to information, to all the information.

Steps have been made in recent years to make access to certain documents easier; but other critical information, information communicated in a briefing session for example, or in a crisis management plan, doesn’t trickle down from the administration because it’s considered unnecessary or even burdensome to have politicians of different political stripes poking their noses into these matters.

In a crisis, we need to all pull together, to work as a coherent team, everyone with the same information. And to be perfectly honest, I am of the opinion that a team’s first allegiance, crisis or not, is not to their party, nor to their own political gain, but to the people.