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Leonie Joubert thinks city dwellers should learn a thing or two about disaster management, particularly since greater extreme weather events seem written into our future.

 

“If the fires come too close,” my mother always says, “I’d only grab two things.” After the pets, that is. The pets would be evacuated first.

“I’d grab the box with the important papers, you know, the birth certificates, passports. And I’d get the family photos. That’s it. The rest of it can burn.”

My mother is not one for high drama. She’s a practical Liverpool lass with a nurse’s calm, the kind of clear-headedness you learn from handling human emergencies. I love that about her.

For 30 years, my parents have lived in a small community in the mountains of the Eastern Cape. Hogsback – you may’ve heard of it? The cost of living in this frog-chirruping mist belt, sandwiched between the regal yellowwoods of the forest and the undulating grasslands above, is that there are no emergency services here. No fire engine to hurtle, bleeeh-blaaah-ing to the rescue; no ambulance following in its dust; no hospital emergency room.
When disasters happened, the locals pitched in.

My father, Bruce, was the fire guy – one of the people who rallied the volunteers when the nearby pine plantations went up in smoke and began eating their way towards private property, usually with ferocious August berg winds lathering at their heels. And my mother, Elena – one of a few medically-trained people on the mountain who were on unofficial call, 24/7 – would be one of the first at any medical drama.

Their house, fortunately, has only ever been threatened from a distance. Once my mother shoved the lead reins of two horses into the hand of a complete stranger at the front gate.

“Get these animals up the hill!” she barked, before loading the cats and dogs into the 2x4 bakkie. Thankfully the fires didn’t get closer.

I remember many medical emergencies: late on a Saturday, in the local doctor’s rooms, holding a lantern (the building was off-grid, so no electricity) while my mother and the local GP stitched up the hand of a man who’d been mauled by a dog. Helping her leverage a 6-foot-plus carpenter onto the back seat of a car to be sped off to hospital two hours away – the man had smashed his face to egg-shell and severed his nose after a plank he was putting through a mechanical saw snagged on a knot. Standing behind her while she dressed the wound of a retired teacher who had been shot in her home by a burglar. Lots of blood, loads of adrenalin, but she was cool as a cucumber.

There were other stories – evacuating an injured mountain climber who’d come off a cliff face; rescuing tourists who got lost in the forest when dusk closed in; saving a horse that got a leg caught between the bars of a cattle grid; turning hosepipes onto the smoking thatched roof of a labourer’s cottage that was about to turn orange with flame.

I keep telling my parents to write a book.

The point, though, is that with all the natural disasters that have streamed across our television screens in recent years – Hurricane Katrina, flooding in the UK, wildfires in Australia – it has me wondering how well urban dwellers are equipped for managing disasters. With police, fire and medical staff just a few minutes away from most suburbs, it’s easy for city folk to hand their emergencies over to state-paid, trained pros.

But with climate change threatening to amplify to magnitude of extreme weather events such as storm surges, veld and urban fires, hurricanes, flooding and the like, those services could easily become overwhelmed. Surely having a citizenry that has basic training in what to do in these emergencies is not a bad thing?

The Western Cape recently unveiled its Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, a document which aims to help provincial and local government adapt to changing climatic conditions. A small part of this is to identify vulnerable communities, such as shack dwellers, and train them in fire prevention and fighting. Not a bad idea – but I think it’s one that could be applied to all of us. Just in case.

 

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