By Lilia Yumagulova 

For this HazNet in-depth series, we interviewed Marie-Claude Arguin, City Manager for Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, about her team’s dedication and resilience in building back better after an unprecedented tragedy.
For Marie-Claude Arguin and her family, camping is a much-treasured time together, away from their busy and demanding schedules, away from the media and away from the 24/7 demands of daily work as a communication and network specialist with over 20 years of experience in crisis management. On July 7, 2013, Marie-Claude was taking a break from her job with the Canadian Armed Forces in Ottawa and camping with her family in the Laurentides. On that morning, for reasons she cannot explain, she asked her husband to turn on the radio while they were cooking breakfast on a sunlit picnic table. What she heard that morning forever changed her life. Explosions. Fire. An unknown number of deaths. A downtown completely destroyed. All of this in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Marie-Claude’s hometown.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned 72-car train rolled down a slope from Nantes at 100 km/hr and derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, spilling and igniting some six million litres of volatile crude oil. Forty-seven people were killed. Twenty-seven children were orphaned. One hundred and sixty-nine people became homeless.  A large portion of downtown was destroyed with 57,000 square metres completely burned and 558,000 metric tonnes of contaminated soil to treat.

Derailment. Picture taken from a Sûreté du Québec helicopter of Lac-Mégantic.

That morning, Marie-Claude rushed to find cell coverage to make sure that her parents were alive. Once she knew that her family members and close friends had survived (albeit with their lives completely changed), Marie-Claude tried to go back to her normal life. Her husband and two sons, ages 6 months and seven, had settled in Ottawa just 12 months earlier after years of military deployment abroad. But for Marie-Claude, there was a sense of unwavering emptiness after the disaster that a “normal life” could not seem to fill: “There was this feeling that I needed to help. I would send cheques to the Red Cross. I would put baby clothes in boxes and send it to the Red Cross. But the feeling of emptiness was never completely fulfilled. It was my husband who actually said, ‘You’ve been in the military for years, and you’ve been to operational bases everywhere something goes wrong on the planet to help with recovery. Why don’t you go to your own community and do the same thing you’ve been doing for the past 23 years for complete strangers? If you feel that is what you need to do, then we will support you,’” The decision was made right there.

Marie-Claude left her job in Ottawa three days later. Ten months after the tragedy, she returned to Lac-Mégantic to start a new job as Deputy City Manager. When she arrived, the community was still “in the first phase of emergency management. Everything was going 1000 miles per hour”. She sat down with her boss and asked, “Where do we start?”

“We talked about what my competencies were, and what I was comfortable with. My boss had to manage the post-emergency but also to continue to run the city. On day one, we decided together that given my previous experience in emergency management (especially at the recovery stage) and my national defense experience at the federal level, I would take over all the tasks related to the emergency, the tragedy, while he would run the normal operational business. A lot had been put on the back burner, because he had to take care of the emergency management”.

“It was obvious that one of the first things to do was to meet with representatives of the government of several departments both provincial and federal, organizations like the Red Cross, and determine what type of programs there are in place, if any, to support with the recovery process. What is their involvement? What are their expectations of us? What are our expectations of them? What are the expectations of our citizens: when can they return home? How do they deal with legal issues? Can our citizens be compensated? Do we deal with insurance companies or deal with compensation programs at the government level? There were many unknowns.  Not because the government didn’t want to support us, to the contrary”.

“What I found was that this scale of accident involving so many different government departments had never happened before. So at the same time as I was asking them, ‘How do we deal with this,’ they were telling me, ‘We don’t know exactly. This has never happened. We are used to different types of emergencies—for example, for fires or flooding in the springtime, we have compensation programs that exist to support municipalities—but never for that sort of accident.’  Should a particular department be the lead? Should it be the Ministry of Transport because it was a train accident? Was it the Department of Environment because it was a mass contamination and environmental disaster? Was it Health? Was it Municipal Affairs? Was it Public Safety? The answer was ‘all of the above’.”

Marie-Claude soon discovered that the disaster was unprecedented in the history of Canada. It required an unprecedented level of collaboration across multiple levels of government and departments: “Because normally it is Public Safety for flooding, for example, and they know at this stage they need to talk Municipal Affairs, at this stage they need to talk to Health. But in this case, everybody was there, and everybody was looking at each other thinking, ‘Ok, I know I have a part to play in this, but I don’t know which one and to what extent.’ It was a huge learning curve in terms of situational awareness for all of us. The disaster was so intense, so large, that everybody wanted to be part of the recovery. Everybody wanted to know what they could do to help. We established very good relationships with the government right from the get-go, and four years later, there isn’t a single day that I am not in contact with one of them, because it’s far from being over.”

When it comes to lessons learned, Marie-Claude suggests that navigating the complexity of intergovernmental and intragovernmental communications and commitments through a newly created structure called le Bureau d’expertise en coordination (BEC) was something that worked, but could also be improved upon in the future. While she became the focal person in charge of disaster recovery for the municipality, the demands of the recovery required much more than the efforts of one person.

“The [BEC] meant that we needed a single focal point for both the municipality and the higher levels of government. I was the link when the Province wanted to talk to the municipality. The Province named the department of Municipal Affairs and one deputy minister as the focal point for interdepartmental coordination. Under this structure, even if I had issues for which I needed to deal with Public Safety or with the Environment, my point of entry was Municipal Affairs. They had a team that was dedicated to Lac-Mégantic, so they would direct a request to the right department. That worked, and the intention was right. The only problem was, because it was the first time this structure was implemented, and it came with good intentions and with the right resources, what was lacking was the power that comes with it”.

“For example, I go to Municipal Affairs and say, ‘I’ve got a problem with the environmental cleanup,’ and they say, ‘Ok. Thank you. We’ll take care of this.’ Then, when they went to the Environment, they did not necessarily easily accept or appreciate that another department that would normally be their equal was now asking them things. So more often than not, the Environment would contact us directly as opposed to go back to the central bureau ran by Municipal Affairs. Again, this is not to say that the Environment or any other department for that matter didn’t want to follow suit, but in a way, it was simply not the way they were used to do things. So these people were hired with the greatest intentions, but the people were not given the right tools to do their job effectively. We say it openly today as a lesson learned and I still thank everyone for taking part in this effort.  Some people even moved to Lac-Mégantic full time to be part of that bureau.”

Among the many lessons learned following the event, one lesson closest to Marie-Claude’s heart is the importance of community healing.

My number one lesson is that we shouldn’t wait for a tragedy to happen.

“We know that one day there could be an earthquake or tsunami somewhere and communities may be destroyed. For sure, there are programs already written about how we are going to support evacuating people, how we are going to start rebuilding the city, how we are going to support this and that. But I bet you there is no program written and practiced with resources put aside to help the people two, four, and ten years down the road, because clearly most of them would have lost everything and would have some sort of post traumatic stress disorder. We need to think about that. When I say supporting the people, I do not mean supporting them with financial compensation.  Most programs include this. What I mean is creating dedicated programs with a single purpose:  the recovery of the human being…healing the soul.

“Everybody had the greatest intentions in Lac-Mégantic. Various levels of government put programs together to help us rebuild our infrastructure. But four years later, although there has been improvement, it’s not automatic”.

The programs that were initially put into place didn’t systematically address psychosocial needs.

“In other words, they didn’t consider the reconstruction of the human mind as a priority.  They considered all of the infrastructure that’s been destroyed, all the taxes the city has lost, and all the programs needed to compensate and make sure that the municipality still has some revenue while it rebuilds. But in most cases, government doesn’t think about the human mind, doesn’t think about what’s required to heal a population that’s hurt, and when we have a large number of people who are clearly going through post-traumatic stress. We have professionals who, three years afterward, are also very affected just by listening to stories. It’s not easy to be a social worker when, day after day, all you hear about is darkness and pain. You need help as well. We were lucky that in Lac-Mégantic, this sort of program was put into place and we fought really hard to maintain it. I am just not convinced, however, that this is included in standard emergency planning courses. Unfortunately, I believe most governments will continue to plan for the reconstruction of the tangible only”.

“We could rebuild the most beautiful downtown here. It could be filled with new infrastructure in gold and diamonds. But if we don’t have healthy and happy human beings to fill that downtown, then we will have done all of this for nothing.”

Yet, Lac-Mégantic is known for having taken significant steps to start the community healing process from very early stages. As Marie-Claude suggests, once the first phase of emergency management was over and all the primary needs were met, engagement and collaboration for rebuilding became key to community healing.

“How do we rebuild? Do we build back exactly the same? Do we take the opportunity—it’s a funny word to use in this context—but now that we have to rebuild, do we decide to build better, build in a different way? We knew that the best way to contribute to the healing process of the population was to include them in the rebuilding process.  The municipality put together a huge consultation process called ‘Réinventer la Ville’ (Reinvent your town). We had several evenings where we brainstormed ideas. These sessions were supported by senior urbanists and city planners. Many of them generously offered their services to help us. They helped us draw up different options. This process took place for the better part of a year at several meetings, and it gathered 400-450 people—which, to someone in Vancouver might not seem like much, but in a town of 6,000, that is huge.

We had huge participation. It was not easy. It was very emotional. But we believe strongly that it is not only a recommendation, but an essential step of the healing process to include the people who lost something, who lost their history.

“Take my parents, for example. They grew up here. They are still here. But their entire downtown is gone. So their history and their memories are gone. It’s important to give them the opportunity and the choice to participate or not: ‘Well, I’ve lost this but now I have an opportunity to rebuild and here is how I would like to see it.’”

Within the field of disaster management, this participatory decision-making and recovery process is considered to be a best practice. However, there are often trade offs between the speed of rebuilding and the time needed for meaningful engagement. How did the municipality balance participation and speed? Marie-Claude says it took respect, patience, rigour, and leadership.

“It was indeed very difficult. It is still difficult today. People wanted to build back quickly, and one of the challenges was that, not everybody, but a good portion of people wanted it rebuilt exactly the way it was. It’s like they wished they could wake up from this bad dream, open their eyes and find the same downtown that they always had. That’s when the difficult decisions and the challenges came in. There’s a lot of psychology in this. We said, ‘OK, we understand, but here is what we could miss if we rebuild the exact same way.’ There was a lot of very respectful engagement trying to show people that ’we understand that you love your downtown the way it was before, but it wasn’t going so well economically and here’s why and here is how we could do things differently.’ And, of course, in a small municipality, we would get the support of experts coming from outside, such as from Montreal and other cities. But the first reaction from the townspeople was ‘Who is (s)he to tell me what I need? You’re not from Lac-Mégantic.  You are from Montreal. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That kind of thing. What made the difference was leadership. Our Mayor was well respected by everybody. You’ve seen her on TV for weeks and weeks. She managed to hold the entire population on her shoulders during this whole time. She was already respected before, and she gained more respect after. I think she applied a lot of psychology to her style of leadership, and she was instrumental in telling people, ’I hear you. I understand. Trust us. We will not erase your past. We will not erase your history even if we do this differently.’ And she told people, ‘Yes, we need these people coming from outside to help us, but believe me I will not let them make something that doesn’t look like us.’

The leadership really made a big difference in terms of making sure we kept people interested in rebuilding better.”

Building back better required some very difficult decisions, but Marie-Claude says the municipality had a legacy of environmental stewardship to build on and to guide their recovery effects.

Because of our beautiful lake, it was kind of in our DNA already that our vision and our actions would be guided from the perspective of eco-responsibility and sustainable development. For example, we were the first municipality in Quebec to start an all-inclusive three-way waste collection program (garbage, recycling and composting) long before the phrase ‘sustainable development’ became popular. It was something the leadership, the administration and the citizens were living by”.

“For instance, we decided that we’re not going to put large, asphalt parking lots downtown. Instead, we decided to implement a pilot project called a ‘green’ parking lot. The project offered a lot of co-benefits, such as rainwater management so a lot less runoff ends up in the lake. We also included a lot more room for people walking, people biking, moms with their strollers, and less room for cars. We were proud when we rebuilt the main street in our downtown with sidewalks that were really, really wide and not in black asphalt but in light cement. We added large cycle paths on them. We added a lot more room for active transportation. We only have a few parking spaces along the street. The parking spaces are dedicated to people with limited mobility, such as people with disabilities and the elderly. This is a new culture. We needed a lot of good arguments to make sure we didn’t build the street exactly like it was. We’re really proud that we decided to rebuild our infrastructure better.”


For Marie-Claude, one important approach to enabling economic recovery is through strategic business relocation.

“We never expected that it would take two-and-a-half years to decontaminate the soil. Even the experts didn’t tell us it would take that long. It was just so heavily, heavily contaminated. We quickly realized that if we didn’t relocate our businesses, then we would either lose those businesses or they would establish themselves elsewhere, spreading and eliminating our chances to one day recreate a town’s heart/core. So we relocated those businesses fairly quickly. It was hard for them to realize that they were not going back to their previous location.

To rebuild back better we made sure that we protected the businesses that were relocated. We gave them confidence in terms of zoning and everything within the powers of the municipality to make sure they would not end up alone and that the new shiny downtown would fill in very quickly and become the new favourite place.

This took a combination of municipal legislation and encouragement to change the culture of the citizens. We had to say, ‘This is your new downtown now. Yes, we will rebuild the historic downtown. But the businesses you were used to, they are here now, and there are here to stay.’ That kind of thing.”

This strategic economic recovery process triggered some difficult on-the-ground negotiations, according to Marie-Claude. The land-use changes involved to establish a commercial corridor in a new area were difficult to manage. Leadership was central to this.

“We have the mountains on one side, and the lake on the other. Then, we have people living all over the place. Initially, we had one particular spot that was just a field between the train tracks, where the accident happened, and our sports centre. The city owned the land so we could have built a new street and infrastructure for our relocated businesses. But there wasn’t enough space to relocate all of our businesses there. And we didn’t want to exclude the downtown. All of the studies demonstrated very clearly that the worst mistake we could make would be to let the downtown—the  heart of the city—explode, so all the businesses would establish themselves like polka dots all over the place. We needed to make sure that we would protect the heart of the city while building a new one. It meant the very difficult decision to proceed with some expropriation. We picked an area of the city where we’ve compensated—we firmly believe—the people fairly. But it meant knocking on people’s doors and telling them, ‘We’re sorry to tell you that you’re going to have to leave.’ When people asked why, we would say, ‘Well, it’s going to be our new commercial zone.’ So you can imagine that this wasn’t well received, because they survived the tragedy, they survived the accident, and now we’re telling them that they don’t have a home anymore. It took very, very strong leadership to stick to the plan. It could have been very easy to succumb to the pressure.”

Mitigating future disasters

Today, four years after the tragedy, the train still runs through downtown Lac-Mégantic. Marie-Claude says the municipality is fighting for a bypass train track while enhancing their emergency management and response capacity.

We will never feel 100 percent protected as long as the train still passes through downtown.

“Why? Well, even if a new company now owns the tracks and we are confident it has a much better maintenance program, even if the legislation governing Transport Canada has improved, we will never be 100 percent protected from human error. We have the slope, we have the curve, and our downtown is right at the bottom of it. This will never change, period.  A human being with the best intentions in the world could always make a mistake, could always forget something. Mechanical safety systems could always fail and the result could be another train coming downtown. In 1918, a very similar accident happened. The only difference from the recent accident was that the 1918 train was transporting wood as opposed to crude oil. So the result wasn’t nearly as bad. In terms of what we are doing to protect ourselves better, the most important thing is to keep fighting for the bypass train track. That’s for sure”.

“Our fire fighters and first responders were really good at emergency management. Right now, we realize the importance of being well prepared. Last Monday, I was sitting at a panel where Transport Canada was reviewing a law called sécurité ferroviaire in French, and what can be done to be better prepared. It’s important to know what dangerous goods are being transported in what quantity so we can at least be better prepared with all the right goods and services. We can put MOUs in place before a disaster strikes. I know during the 2013 Calgary floods, what saved them a lot of time were the MOUs signed in advance. They knew exactly where to get services and goods to help. It was a proper process. This is something being negotiated during peace time, prior to an emergency striking.  Once we are in emergency mode, especially when it is 01h30 in the morning, it is not the time to get onto the phone and start negotiating.”

When asked about advice for other municipalities, especially smaller ones, to prepare before an emergency, Marie-Claude draws on her military training and experience:

Practice, practice, practice.

“Roles and responsibilities. If it does happen, who does what? Who calls whom? Who is responsible for what? So it becomes almost like we were doing it in the military. So it becomes second nature. I would like to have a magic answer in terms of what to do to prevent an accident, but I don’t. The next best thing to accident prevention is ensuring that all your first responders and all of your employees are ready to  kick into gear. We don’t want accidents to happen, but we need to have scenarios together. Let’s say what if it happens and it happens this way, then who’s in charge of what and who’s doing what and who do we call? That’s just from a work perspective. But we need to go a little bit further. What we’ve learned is that many first responders were here for weeks and weeks and weeks, day and night. They still had families to take care of. That is also part of prevention. If an accident happens, and I’m stuck here for weeks, who is going to take care of my family? We need to go even further. It’s not just a professional matter of what we need to do at an accident site: we need to reassure responders and municipal employees that we will give them the time to make sure their family is well.”

For the past four years, for example, the long haul and heavy toll of the recovery process was enabled by staff, citizens and key recovery partners such as the province, the federal government and the Red Cross, among others. Throughout this process, Marie-Claude explains, allocating time and resources to take care of these hard-working staff, citizens and social workers was a priority for the municipality. But it is much simpler said than done, she warns.

“It’s all about resilience. There are a lot of ways you can increase resilience in a human being. It’s about confidence. If you feel confident that if something happened you’ve got the right leadership and the right people to take care of you and your family, then your resilience will be much higher. With higher resilience, you’ll be more likely to survive the trauma. For example, we still work with the Canadian Red Cross. The way their programs are built is very smart. When a disaster of this scale hits, they arrive very quickly. At Lac-Mégantic, nobody from the municipality called the Red Cross, but they came after receiving a call from one of their local volunteers that, herself, had to evacuate. They didn’t wait for orders from anyone, and they got all the gear in trucks and they arrived only a few hours later. It was still dark outside when they started to show up. The organization is structured in such a way that they know exactly what to do in what I call Phase Zero: the emergency, its primary needs. That means ensuring people are evacuated and sheltered, that they have food, and that they are reassured. But four years later, the Red Cross is still with us, and they still have money that they’ve raised. They’re very smart in making sure that they’re not going to spend everything in the first six months, because a lot of their programs four years later are actually geared to power resilience. Sometimes their educational programs—the babysitting courses, courses on how to stay alone for young kids and elderly people—are actually building back resilience. Unconsciously, it’s bringing back safety and confidence to citizens. And that’s what we need to rebuild, too. We have been told many times that we are a resilient community, and it was probably true. But resilience can also decrease. Four years later, although we are getting back up, it would be a lie to say that our resilience level is the same as it was in 2013. So if we were going to get hit with the same tragedy today I know for sure we would not be as resilient because we are not done recovering from the first one. So right now, in terms of prevention, what we need to do is make sure that in their every day life people are actually feeling safe from trains that pass. They need to feel safe when they’re at work. They need to know their 12-year-old who comes home after school will be safe, and they need to know what to do if they cut themselves with a knife cutting carrots. All these little things will add to resilience. A person with a ‘’full resilience tank’’ would not even think about these little details”.

I also believe that it is worth putting a lot of energy into a spreading positivity. I call it THE POSITIVE CAMPAIGN.  For every bit of bad news, let’s bury it with good news. We have so much good news but the media rarely wants to hear about it…it is sad, truly sad”.

Planning for social recovery is something that rarely happens before a disaster strikes. Yet, that is where Marie-Claude feels the focus should be placed. In Lac-Mégantic, several innovative, accessible and effective practices were adopted. One of them, known as the Proximity Team, follows the Red Cross’ Red Bib model. The Proximity Team used white bibs.

“Red Cross members are visible in the community because of their red bibs. So we put together, at the community level, what we called ‘the Proximity Team,’ a team of social workers. Most of them were external, from different municipalities, different cities, so they could be completely neutral and rational and not emotional. Their role was to talk to people, to help them. But it was not like, ‘OK, we’ve increased the social worker team at the Lac-Mégantic hospital by 10 people. Make an appointment and go see them.’ What we quickly realized was that people who need help, especially in a small town where everybody knows everybody, might not seek it through formal channels. For example, the most influential citizen might have too much pride to make an appointment to see a social worker. Yet, if the person has suicidal thoughts, someone needs to talk to that person”.

“The Proximity Team still exists today (but without the bibs).  It was cut by the government, but we fought for it and we got it back. What is unique about this model is that social workers are completely embedded within the community. Yes, they have office space, but what they do daily is they walk around. They go to restaurants, they listen to discussions, they ask questions, they look at people’s non-verbal communications and then they reach out to people who are displaying signs of still needing help. They reach 95 percent of their clients that way. They see, they live, they feel and that’s how they reach out. They are so good it’s crazy”.

“During the immediate recovery phase, these teams had white bibs on. They knew we had people who had just lost kids or relatives or friends. We realized that these people were not reaching out to get help. We realized that we needed to reach out to them to offer safe accessible space to seek help as part of their daily routines.  To this day, it has been really, really helpful that The Proximity Team is working right here with our locals in the city. We know that there are still a lot of people that need help. We give them that help in a different way, we reach out to them, we establish some sort of a continuous space for connecting and getting people to talk when they are ready.”

Despite the heavy burden of Lac-Mégantic’s immediate recovery needs and the pressure to rebuild as quickly as possible, city staff made a priority of listening, engaging and proactively learning on the job, says Marie-Claude.

“When things like this happen, we gather strength. We were supported by people giving us ideas, but we also learned as we went along, because an event of such large scale was unprecedented. We were very open to reading about lessons learned from other places, other places on the planet where we knew something bad happened, like the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.”

“One thing that became very obvious to us was that our children seemed okay at first, but then things changed. We had a team consulting all of our youth in primary and secondary schools and in the college. Basically, the team would go to the school, and tell kids ‘here is a piece of white paper; draw how you dream your future downtown. What do you see there?’ We have hundreds of pictures of kids drawing candy stores, etc. But at the same time, we also observed that some kids’ drawings were really black. There wasn’t any pink and yellow. It was in black and burnt colours.  So, the Proximity Team and all of our psychosocial teams are putting together a special effort in terms of following our youth to make sure we don’t forget about them. They were strong at the beginning, but I guess that was like a natural defence mechanism. As long as they felt their parents were wounded, they stayed strong.  When their parent found their strength back, many fell”.

“We didn’t want to forget about our elderly either. We sent mobile teams to the homes of our elderly, because they’re kind of left alone. They’re in the community. They watch TV. They know what’s happening, and they’re sad because all of their memories are gone. They’re too old to take part in the rebuilding process, and they couldn’t get to the evening sessions. So we sent mobile teams. It was really important that we got representation from everyone”.

Recovery from disaster is never simple, says Marie Claude, but she is grateful for her military training in emergency management. A key lesson from that training, she says, is the recognition that the hardest work comes well after the dust of the tragedy has settled.

“In Phase Zero, the immediate response, everyone has the same objectives. It’s primary needs. Are we OK? Are we going to survive? Etc. So we all go in the same direction without even asking. And because the disaster was so large in our case, everybody was offering help. Four years later, we still have people helping us. But the population is at a different place. Some are healed already, and some are far from healing. And it’s normal that, four years later, we don’t have all the attention and help that we had at the beginning. We are however overworked. We can still see that for years to come we are not going to be fully recovered. We don’t have the same level of resiliency. We are tired. Sometimes when we ask for help, we are told no, after four years we should be back to normal. A regular citizen of Quebec Province that doesn’t live here cannot imagine that we are still far from being recovered. They cannot imagine that the staff here still work on average 50-60 hours a week and that’s because I do not allow them to work more. That’s why it’s harder: our reality is difficult to understand and believe because it never happened before elsewhere. And when I talk about different stages, about where we are in terms of healing process, we’re back to our regular municipal management where some citizens wonder why it isn’t all rebuilt yet”.

So, really the phase are we in is the most difficult phase, and it is going to last for many more years”.

“We are still so overwhelmed with everything. We’re almost still in survival mode. So our guiding principle might be to make sure that the team doesn’t break, that the population doesn’t break, and we need to find a way that we can all keep going. Because we need the investors from outside to come, and if the picture portrayed shows that we’re all sick, we’re all suicidal (some media called us that!), we’re all tired, then they won’t come. This is where I bring back my POSITIVE CAMPAIGN.  There are people who are going to be in shock. There are people who are going to be in post-traumatic stress, and we’re going to need to help them. There are people who are going to get tired. It’s normal. But what we don’t want to forget is that we have done so much already. We need to celebrate our successes, even the smallest, every day. We need to remember all of the good we’ve done already. And that will give us the energy to keep going. We have the responsibility to tell this to everybody. Sometimes journalists interview me, and they ask, ‘How much money have you lost? How many buildings have you lost?’ And I tell them I’m not going to answer that, but what I will tell you is how many new families we have in town and how many new buildings we have started to rebuild. So I guess one of our guiding principles, while it’s far from easy, is to focus on our positive campaign because there are a lot of positives being done; it’s just that the context is a bit difficult to see”.

What happened was tragic. But if it is going to make some legislative changes that are critical to public safety for communities across Canada, that would be a good thing”.

A note from the editor: This interview stands out for me from among the hundreds of disaster-related interviews I have conducted over the years. It is not just the sheer scale of the tragedy that engulfed a small municipality, putting its staff and leadership under unimaginable pressure from post-disaster public service, but the conscious and often difficult choice to build back better. Exceptional leadership at the political, staff and citizen level along with innovative ways of addressing and investing in social, economic, and environmental recovery while rebuilding infrastructure make this story truly unique.