Over 80,000 people are fleeing their homes and businesses — some for the last time — and finding refuge in neighboring camps, communities and cities. Conditions right now are hot and tinder-dry. The wind has blown the fire into a raging inferno.
People have sat for hours on highways trying to escape.
Drivers have gone into ditches and on shoulders trying to break through traffic.
People have abandoned their vehicles and started out on foot, hoping a ride further down the highway will pick them up.
It is the worst evacuation in Alberta’s history.
Albertans, as always, have stepped up: community centres have become staging areas for evacuees, campgrounds have opened up sites, hotels and motels have made units available, and people are opening up their own homes to make sure everyone has a safe place to sleep. Fundraisers are already being organized; truck drivers/haulers are going up and down the highways with bottled water, gas and supplies to help the stranded; social media has lit up with ways for folks to get connected to family, friends and supports; and our hard-working first responders continue to battle the blaze day and night.
Here at the food bank, we’re busy stocking up on essentials, getting the word out that we’ll be open Monday to Friday, and making sure needs are being met as they come to us.
One family told me of being able to only the tail lights of the vehicle in front, and a ribbon of fire over the highway. If that isn’t walking through hell, I don’t know what is.
And more shock.
Sometimes in our efforts to navigate shock, or to assist people enduring shock, or to simply get the right information to know how to help, we forget that our emotional and relational needs are just as critical as our physical well beings.
Shock and trauma are largely lived experiences. That is, when someone experiences something traumatic their sensory brain kicks in automatically. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, fight-or-flight, fragmented memory recall, and lack of cognitive awareness. These are NORMAL responses to circumstances that create uncontrollable terror. Our bodies kick in and take over. This is why people who experience trauma often cannot remember specifics, or remember specifics differently from other people. The memories are located in the sensory brain, and not the cognitive brain.
So when someone who’s just fled a fiery inferno is suddenly in tears whereas they appeared fine before, the shock is living its life. When someone remembers for a moment that their house has burned down and lashes out the person offering them shelter, that’s trauma trying to express itself in ways the person probably doesn’t even recognize yet. It’s not meanness or rudeness. It’s people’s systems doing their level bests to protect their peoples.
Sadly, it’s during these times that the worst can also come out in people. Name-calling, accusations, condescension, comparisons, and other trolling tactics emerge. For those of us a few degrees removed from the crisis, we have the responsibility to choose how we will respond. For people in trauma and shock, for people in fear and terror, we need to choose to be safe people. Tearing one another apart accomplishes nothing other than to expose our own fears and meanness.
Here are few things we could be careful of:
- This fire isn’t Rachel Notley’s fault.
Calling her a cunt or bitch for what you think she has done or hasn’t done is not only useless, it’s violent. Using terms that still exist to demean women, children and other marginalized groups is not just crass, it’s bullying. You may have your political opinions, but in this moment of crisis, name-calling is not the way to express those opinions.
If you have a sincere problem with how the provincial government is handling the situation, take the time to address it personally. Garbage on FB or Twitter is nothing but trolling. Choose not to be a troll.
2. Stop the comparisons.
What the people of Fort McMurray are going through is horrid. We’re all in shock over it. Yet it’s common during times of crisis for people we deem to be experiencing lesser traumas to be grateful.
“You think you have it bad? Think about the poor people of Fort McMurray!”
There is certainly a time and place to teach our kids about being grateful (and ourselves), but remember what I said about trauma being sensory? Just because someone hasn’t lived through a fiery inferno, but perhaps had a close call in a potential drowning accident off the end of a dock, it doesn’t make the almost-drowner a whiner when there are nightmares, depressive episodes, or terror of returning to the water. Their bodies are in as much full blown protection mode as an evacuee’s.
By making comparisons during times like this, we minimize potentially devastating moments in the lives of other people. It’s hard enough for people to disclose terrorizing moments as it is. Comparisons only make any hope for support upon disclosure that much further away.
3. If someone you see is calling down a first responder or agency, politely ask them to stop.
Humans cannot fight fires, triage medical emergencies, have food hampers ready, or provide mental health support 24/7. The supports can potentially be there 24/7, but they are run by humans — humans who get tired, hungry, overwhelmed, and MUST HAVE sleep, food, and time to cry a little bit or be with family.
For people trying our hardest to help during this time, much grace must be given. We cannot act as robots. As hard as we’re trying to smooth out the bumps, mistakes will be made, hiccups in communication will happen, and balls will be dropped. We don’t like to think that this is the reality, especially when our lives are suddenly in the hands of fallible folks, but there it is.
Swearing, cussing, calling down, or judging an agency during the crisis is useless and mean. If you have a direct issue, take that issue DIRECTLY to the agency and refrain from spreading your stuff all over social media. It only serves to spread fear, misinformation, and more trolling.
(For the record, any person on my Facebook page who refers to anyone — government, municipal, professional, or personal — as a bitch or a cunt or a pussy or a slut or a whore or a child-f***er or a slut or even hints at calling down other people using such dehumanizing language will be cut off. That might not mean much to you, but knowing how damaging these words are to people in different kinds of trauma other than the Fort Mac evacuation, I will have zero tolerance for them or your intentions in using them. You have brains. Use them for the power of good rather than choosing to use language that still pommels women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ people into the ground.
Pointing fingers at whose karma is going to get whom is beyond childish. It’s a schoolyard game that tears down people we’ve disagreed with, while boosting our sense of power in an otherwise powerless situation. Stop the karma-pointing. Now is NOT the time to be judging who’ll “get it in the end”.)
Those were some things we could refrain from.
How about somethings we CAN do.
- As I mentioned above, if you have DIRECT issue (as in you personally have been mistreated, neglected, forgotten or feel your concerns were not heard) with an agency, contact it DIRECTLY. Speak calmly, clearly and identify your issue.
The last thing we need is for angry people calling us up, swearing up a blue streak, accusing us of God-knows-what, but refuses to actually assist in diffusing the situation.
If you haven’t been directly affected, unless you are part of an advocacy group speaking on behalf of the affected person(s), STAY OUT OF IT. Nothing to see here. Not your fight. Move along.
2. Recognize the hugeness of what’s happening around us, but remember that trauma is no respecter of persons.
Just because the country is focused on helping Fort Mac evacuees, it doesn’t mean life stops on our ends. Car crashes still happen, houses away from the huge fire up north still burn down, kids still get bullied and hurt at school, and marriages still fall apart. These are all things that carry the weighty potential of trauma, shock, grief and loss. Instead of condescending to people experiencing the effects of these things, be gentle listeners realizing that much of what’s happening is beyond conscious control.
3. And lastly, breathe…drink…pray…move.
We must take care of ourselves. If we don’t, we will wither and die. That’s what happens when people are in shock or are struggling with compassion fatigue. Take long, deep breathes that fill the belly…hold…exhale…repeat. Do this as many times as you feel you can; and make it a habit throughout the day and night to repeat this ritual.
The body needs to be hydrated. Period. And during this massive heat wave, it’s all the most critical to keep water flowing. Shock also dehydrates us. Have your water bottle. Keep drinking.
Pray. Out loud. To yourself. In your mind and heart. But pray. However prayer looks for you, keep doing it. Be careful of sharing prayer with people who are perhaps not ready to engage in prayer, or who don’t want to especially in light of what’s happened. Be careful of any statements like:
“This was meant to happen.”
“Everything’s connected. There’s a reason for this.”
“God’s will said so.”
“I’ll pray for you.”
Our intentions might be good, but again these statements serve more to minimize the pain of the person in front of us while boosting our own beliefs. Pray. But pray wisely and with gentleness for all around.
And move. Especially when we’re in freeze mode of the fight or flight response, even walking around the room is critical. Stretch your arms above your head. Do some yoga. Take a jog. Shoot some hoops. Whatever it is, KEEP MOVING. Keep the body in tune and in a place where it can learn to release the stress that’s being put on it.
It’s a nightmare what’s happening right now. No other word for it. But by consciously choosing to refrain from damaging behaviours, and remembering to engage in helpful behaviours, we can be a healthier people. We’ll be better able to support those in the vulnerable spaces around us.