Risk assessment rules the roost

Fear of liability and risk aversion have a place, but should not replace concern and compassion.

One of the stories to come out of the terrible tragedy at Johnsons Landing on Kootenay Lake, where four people were likely killed by a huge mudslide, set me thinking.

Richard Ortega, who runs a retreat centre at the remote site, was called at 4 a.m. Friday by the mother of the two girls caught in the slide. She had a premonition that one of them was still alive, and asked him to go take a look.

Officials had decided it was too dangerous to do a search, and that they feared further slides. In fact, there were some smaller slides on Friday — one of them chillingly caught on video taken from a boat by Global TV, whose reporter had been ashore just a few minutes earlier, at the spot where the slide came down.

Ortega did what most people would do — he went and checked out the destroyed home, where the two girls lived with their father. It had been pushed off its foundation, but was still visible in the mud. He was able to crawl over the wall of mud and debris and get inside the building, but found nothing.

Meanwhile, the search and rescue crews, including a heavy urban search and rescue team from Vancouver, waited — told to do so by experts who quite correctly suggested that there was a likelihood of further mudslides.

It was eerily familiar. Just a few weeks ago, search and rescue crews were held back from going into a collapsed shopping mall in Elliot Lake, Ontario — even though there had been some tapping in the rubble two days after the mall collapsed. They faced a great deal of criticism, and eventually after much delay resumed a search, eventually finding two bodies.

This is in no way a denigration of search and rescue crews. They are highly trained and know what to do. But they are also under the control of an increasingly complex and bureaucratic system of government that we as citizens seem quite content with. As such, they are at times kept on the sidelines because of perceived dangers or risks.

It is what our society has come down to — everything is assessed on the basis of risk. Anything remotely connected with government has to go through an elaborate process of risk assessment, whether in the form of workplace regulations or on-the-spot assessment of conditions, as happened in both these tragedies.

Yet it wasn’t always that way. In earlier days, people simply searched for those caught in a slide, mine explosion or collapsed building. They did so because they wanted to help.

Not far from Johnsons Landing is the mining town of Sandon, a fascinating and unique place. It’s had many slides over the years, as it’s located in a narrow valley with steep slopes on all sides.

Back in 1937, a massive avalanche buried a home on one of the slopes, and a young girl wasn’t able to get out.

This is how Veronika Pellowski tells the story in Silver, Lead and Hell, the Story of Sandon: “The home was crushed under the weight of hundreds of tons of snow. Sandonites, young and old, began digging and were joined the following day by volunteers from New Denver and Silverton. Some had walked the whole 13 miles uphill, wading through knee-deep snow. Six-year-old Evelyn was found lying against a chair where the dining room had been.”

We have learned a great deal about risk management and safety, but it seems a great deal of compassion and concern for others has been sacrificed to satisfy insurance companies and bureaucrats.