Tsunami of fire

Trains. In downtown cities. We don’t think of them being akin to a bomb. Yet this is what happened in Lac Megantic in Quebec, Canada, in July 2013. A freight train, full of tankers, rolled unattended and derailed, exploding. 47 people died, thousands made homeless and most of the CBD of Lac Megantic was destroyed or contaminated with fuel and had to be demolished. Burning oil entered the town’s sewer system, and the heat from the fires was felt up to 2 kilometres away. As a Musiccafe patron described it:

“It was moving at a hellish speed … no lights, no signals, nothing at all. There was no warning. It was a black blob that came out of nowhere. I realized they were oil tankers and they were going to blow up, so I yelled that to my friends and I got out of there. If we had stayed where we were, we would have been roasted.”

We met up last week with Dr Melissa Generaux, who generously gave us time on her last night in Melbourne before heading back to Canada. Melissa has been leading the psycho-social response to Lac MEgantic, and published a very important paper detailing the psycho-social impacts of the disaster.  Melissa was  in town for the World Congress for Public Health  and through us was able to catch up with Lisa Gibbs from University fo Melbourne and the lead for the Beyond Bushfires study at the session that was being run by the Uni Melbourne team at the congress.

One of the great things about this paper, is that it mirrored many of the findings that we had in the Beyond Bushfires study. On a practical level, I liked the way in the paper they described the impacts in terms of “personal, conjugal, family, social and professional lives of those involved” I think we tend to forget congugal and professional dimensions, and have really only just recently recognised the social dimension. The other interesting and important dimension, which we talk about, but haven’t often grasped is loss. They talk about loss as being human, material and subjective, defining these as;

“A human loss refers to losing a loved one, fearing for one’s life or that of a loved one, or sustaining an injury. A material loss refers to relocating (temporarily or permanently), or sustaining property damage. Finally, a subjective loss refers to the perception that the event was stressful, that something important was lost, that something important was interrupted, or that harm will potentially occur in the future”

The subjective loss concept is a nice way of framing all the stuff we know happens, and has an impact, but is not necessarily caught up in the cricket score reporting of disasters. It’s the disruption that I bang on about, being in some ways more important than pure loss, as it is the meaning making of the disaster. We talked about the stresses of class actions, of rebuilding, of the proposed rerouting of the train line out of the centre (but then through the suburbs, transferring the risk, not mitigating it), of the anniversary (and recruiting volunteers- greeters  for the anniversary who were able to tell the story of what happened so the townspeople didn’t have  to tell the story over and over again).

Melissa and her colleagues found that psychological distress remained high over time, although there was a reduction in post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Among those considered to have a high exposure to the disaster, the use of medical and support services, and prescription drugs increased over the three year. They report both negative and positive changes in their lives, and a positive improvement in social life and quality of their networks. Interestingly, although not surprising (given I have heard this anecdotally many times) , those high affected reported a deterioration in professional and workplace based relationships.

Like the Beyond Bushfires research, this study is important because of not only demonstrating the longer term impacts, but also a move away from a pure mental health condition approach. It further supports the notion that you might not have a diagnosable condition, but life might be tough (although the phenomenon as we are seeing more and more of, it might be tough, but there are some positives-post traumatic growth).

The research was also important because they were able to implement it quickly, then off the back of initial results, they were able to then secure funds for expanded programs. Having the ability to rapidly  implement a public health study is important, and not something that we consider doing here. (maybe governments don’t want to know).

What struck us all as we were talking, was that Melissa came to the conclusions in isolation, we had to deal with various disasters in isolation. We only made this connection because my colleague Shona had met Judi Frank from Canadian Red Cross at a conference, and then when their Fort McMurray Fires came along, we skyped with them for a bit, and then by sharing the Beyond Bushfire Research, this made its way through our CRC team in Quebec to Melissa. Very organic!. We said  how good would it be If we were all connected in some way by a network -the International League of Crazy Recovery People, the motto being you ain’t alone!  Watch this space.

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