Friday, Sept. 09, 2005
Dear Diary:

In 1998 Quebec went through its Katrina, its own extreme once every 500 years weather disaster, a huge catastrophic ice storm.

The loss of life wasn't anywhere near Katrina, but the suffering was extreme. Thanks to very cheap electricity and an aggressive marketing campaign in the 1970's and 1980's, many Quebeckers heat their homes electrically. Not far from where I live there were places that went for six, seven weeks without electricity while the thermometer hovered at -30C, which is stupidly cold.

Much of the electrical grid south of Montreal was so badly damaged that it was not a question of repair, it was a question of tear it down and start again. Major, major financial hit.

Hydro Quebec immediately promised that it would look right into the situation because by golly they were committed to serving Quebeckers the best way possible. The government, which oversees Hydro Quebec, said they'd be right there helping Hydro with the investigation. Move along folks, was their attitude, we'll take care of this for you. Really. We mean it.

Yep, the two groups with the most butt covering to do were very, very keen to take care of any investigations. Kind of like asking Bugs Bunny to look into the mysterious disappearances down in the carrot patch.

Well, the public was too steamed to go for that. An independent commission was set up to look honestly at what happened. A bureaucracy saw that they would become accountable for their mistakes. And most importantly, lessons were learned.

I repeat that: they set up an independent commission, they looked honestly at what had happened during the ice storm, and lessons were learned. I know. I'm as shocked as you are.

When the grid was rebuilt, it was rebuilt to withstand one of these once every 500 years storms. They did not do a cheap ass spit and duct tape repair. System design faults were addressed: remote line were moved to more accessible locations so repairs would be more speedy.

And just as importantly, preventative maintenance, going around making sure that tree branches and/or diseased trees are no where near close enough to hydro lines to bring them down in another ice storm, is routinely performed. For the last few weeks tree removal and trimming crews have been working their way through our valley yet again. Heck, if you have a tree on your property that you feel threatens hydro lines, all you have to do is call Hydro Quebec and they'll assess the situation and deal with it for you for free.

The big lesson they learned from the ice storm is that an ounce of prevention is hecka cheaper than a pound of cure.

Did this cost money? Yes, it did. I use the same amount of electricity as I did before the ice storm and it costs me about $7 more a month now. Does that upset me?

This would be the point where I look deeply into your eyes before rapping sharply on your forehead with my knuckles and yelling loudly in your ear, "Hello, anybody home?"

For the equivalent of two designer coffees a month I know that the system that brings electricity to my home is infinitely better than it was before. I also know that if Hydro Quebec is making mistakes, they are bright, shiny, and hopefully smaller new mistakes, not the same old ones.

Which brings us to Katrina. It looks pretty clear that mistakes were made at the local, state and federal level which means that an awful lot of people have an awful lot of butt covering they would like to do.

There's a lot at stake here because the U.S. mid-term elections will roll around next year and this president and his party won the last election mostly on the issue of security. He promised Americans that he could do a very, very good job of keeping them safe.

Hours after Katrina blew in, several hundred thousand Americans found themselves a whole lot less safe than they had ever been in their lives.

An independent commission can look at this dispassionately and sort out where things broke down and why. If this is done honestly, then yes, there will be political pain but there will also be a real chance to fix things in the U.S. as we in Quebec fixed things after our Katrina. There is a chance for old mistakes to be avoided, leaving room for bright, shiny, new ones. Who amongst us is not a fan of bright, shiny and new?

My thoughts, exactly.

In his February, 2005 State of the Union address, the president said, "… a society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable …" He was, of course, mostly talking about a brain dead woman in Florida but I don't think it's too far fetched to apply these words to the people whose lives were ended or changed forever by Katrina.

It looks as if the Katrina death toll could climb into the tens of thousands, a truly shocking number. Many of the dead were the most weak and vulnerable people—the aged, the handicapped, the sick, the poor, the children. So many children who will never grow up.

Are these deaths for nothing? They don't have to be. An honest, independent commission can look at the actions of the local, state and federal governments, point out what went wrong and through that find a way to make sure old mistakes aren't repeated again. Lessons can be learned because of these deaths.

Or not.

Plan B would be a tidy little government investigation which will cover as many butts as possible and life will go on with little change. Except, of course, for the tens of thousands of people who died, but then most of them were handicapped, sick, poor or children, the very definition of weak and vulnerable. Oh, and those hundreds of thousands more who lost everything they own, many of whom were too poor to afford insurance.

And really, when you think about it, none of these people form organized voting blocks, nor do they tend to donate big sums to political parties so in a sense they don't count for that much, eh.

A society is measured by how it treats the weak and vulnerable. That's what the president said.

Since the U.S. is coming up to an election year, its senators and congress people listen very closely to their constituents. This is one of those times of year when anyone who votes is anything but weak and vulnerable.

If elected officials hear enough insistent yet polite voices tell them that they expect an independent Katrina investigation, that the votes these insistent yet polite voices hold will depend on whether or not there is an independent Katrina investigation, then there will be an independent Katrina investigation.

Letters sent to your political representative with a note that said letter has been CC'd to the local newspaper really catches their eye. Newspapers are very interested to know what people are thinking.

If you're thinking, "Man, finding out who my representatives are and actually writing them letters is a buttload of work, What's In This For Me?" um, well, here's one way to look at it. If nature decides to open a can of whupass where you live, and the mistakes that were made during Katrina are cleaned up, then You Could Actually Be Safer. Really. It could happen.

See, that's another funny thing that comes out of independent commissions—if bureaucrats and politicians find that there are actual consequences for what they do and do not do, they tend to do a better job. Go figure.

Independent commission or Bugs Bunny rummaging around the carrot patch? It will be interesting to see what happens.

--Marn

Mileage on the Marnometer: 918.68 miles. 10 per cent rubber duck10 per cent rubber duck10 per cent rubber duck10 per cent rubber duckhalf way smooch10 per cent rubber duck Over half way there. Oh, man, please let this be over


Goal for 2005: 1,250 miles - 2000 kilometers


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