Lessons on risk and safety

On January 19th, 2005 at 3:30 am, after days of heavy rain, my home in North Vancouver was destroyed by a mudslide. My mother, Eliza Kuttner, a computer science instructor at what is now Capilano University died, and my father was hospitalized with life threatening injuries. Had I not been away at boarding school, I would have died too. I am sure this is an event many people remember. Though I lost a lot that day, the whole community went through trauma.

Over the following years, we learned how avoidable the mudslide had been. So let’s be clear on why this happened: the government was at least partially responsible. In 1980, when the District of North Vancouver approved construction of the home, they knew risks existed (there had been slides just the previous year). The District urged the owners above to mitigate the risks, but also made them sign a confidentiality agreement, and did not ensure the stabilizing measures were ever put in place.

This taught me a lot about assumptions. Why would we have suspected anything? Surely it was safe if the house was allowed to be built. The reports were kept from us, and from where we lived the escarpment looked like any forested hillside. I have learned we cannot simply assume the government has our backs when it comes to safety.

We all live with risk, but how much risk is acceptable, and whose decision is it? I believe it should be up to the individual, and we have a right to know what risks we are taking. In some cases, in the balance between the likelihood and the severity of a catastrophic event, there is no acceptable level of risk. The system that has allowed risks to be taken on our behalf must change, and communities deserve the final say.

As we begin to feel the impacts of a changing climate, we need local action and preparedness. I am done debating climate. Natural disasters and extreme weather aren’t dealt with by arguing over carbon. Yes, we must lower emissions, yes it all needs solving, but we don’t have to hold our breath for some technological breakthrough. We already have solutions like Drawdown, and we need leaders to implement them and then get down to what really matters: looking after our communities.

The fires and flooding that have worsened over the past three years and wreaked havoc in so many BC communities are examples of the early effects of climate change. It hurts me so much to watch, knowing that we could always be better prepared. The one thing I want above all else is that we are ready for what’s to come. A lot of things are predictable and we can ready ourselves, and for the things that aren’t, we can have the resources ready to respond.

The District of North Vancouver, under different leadership than those who approved the construction of my family home, made great efforts to work on environmental safety and risk management, even winning the United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2011. This was a great start, something that needs to be continued here and shared widely.

An example of a development that has questionable safety is the Burnaby Mountain Tank Farm, which sits right next to residential areas. In 2015 the Burnaby Fire Department issued a report detailing how unsafe the Trans Mountain Tank Farm is, and how unacceptable the risk is. It made me wonder how housing developments and dangerous industry were allowed to be so close to each other, but somehow I was not surprised. I don’t have a solution for this, but I think the system that allowed it to happen must change, and the community should get to decide on what the solution is.

Threats don’t seem real until we experience them. We say it’ll all work out and we’ll be fine, but the world changes for those who have lost homes and families to disaster, for people like me, and for those who have lost to fire, flood, mudslide, and more, here in BC.

When I see any situation that risks families, homes, and livelihoods, I look at them the same way; to me, it becomes visceral. Be it extreme weather, seismic building standards, or development of land near risk-laden areas, we must put people and communities first. I refuse to watch people’s lives and well-being put at risk the way my family was. It simply isn’t right.


More about the mudslide:

CBC News article about the mudslide

CBC News article on preventability

Eliza Kuttner legal claim

1980 Klohn Leonoff Report Riverside-Berkley escarpment