During my 30+ years as a public servant, I witnessed occasions of social and economic disruption. The closing of a mine in a single-industry town is devastating. Watching fish plant closures and the loss of the economic life blood of a region, such as happened with the cod fish moratorium, is heartbreaking. Seeing Port aux Basques lose its railway presented trying times for the community. Among other similar events it was my experience that ,while the response was not always perfect, the primary government supports offered were generally understood and delivered.
For example, I recall speaking to fishery workers in Ramea at the local church. Tensions were high about what income support would be available now that the local fish plant was likely permanently shut. As a public service manager responsible for that region (along with much of the southwest coast), these were difficult times. Thankfully, the department of government I represented provided me with sufficient answers and program details so that we had a plan that we were confident we could deliver. In hindsight I think we did and, generally, workers and communities were reassured.
As I wrote in a previous column, a natural disaster like what happened with hurricane Fiona in Port aux Basques, is in another category altogether. Losing one’s livelihood is one thing, but watching your house being destroyed or washed out to sea is another. Tied to this event is an impact that is emotional on a number of levels There is the physical property in which was invested much personal time and money. How do you deal with memories of years living in one place including the loss of items of personal value that may transcend generations? This is hard stuff and runs deep in a Newfoundland community that has a long history and sense of place.
So we come to what is a complex problem that is in need of remedy. I don’t live in the region and can only imagine the trauma and tragedy that exists. I have talked to some people about the response from the various levels of government, especially for those who have lost property. There is frustration with the inevitable delays. The mayor of Port aux Basques has been steadfast in his regular public appearances and communications. My understanding is that key provincial officials and resources are readily available to him and the municipality. On some fronts progress is being made. Mayor Brian Button, however, has only so much authority. The Mayor must rely on other officials and levels of government to deal with things such as property assessments and evaluation.
This is where the rubber hits the road and problems arise. Families living in hotels, temporary accommodation or with relatives need clear answers. They need to see a pathway that gives them knowledge of how they plan for the future. Co-ordination among government departments and other agencies is critical. A crisis is always an opportunity to exceed expectations and find new ways to get things done. God knows with the challenges to be faced in the community in the coming winter months, this is no time for bureaucratic fumbling and mixed messages.
When I look at the reality of the current situation, it strikes me that communication and clear lines of authority are vitally important. Does that exist at present? It is critical that those impacted are not confused and are in limbo making their future plans. On a previous occasion in which I was involved and where there was a significant worker layoff that devastated the region, the provincial government appointed a senior official to oversee the response effort. That official had the confidence of the premier to work across government departments and agencies to clear up bottlenecks and be a focal point for communications to the community. The Premier and government ministers are busy people and are not always able to get in to the details where difficulties arise. Would this help in what appears to be an increasing level of frustration among many residents?
There is a lot to be considered, especially when the community may lose tax revenues and quite possibly see a decline in population. Losing a house decreases your sense of attachment to a place, so some people may choose to live elsewhere. The longer people have to wait for answers, the easier the decision is to move. Port aux Basques can ill afford this loss in people or revenue.
Port aux Basques still has a fairly solid population upon which to build. It has a good economic anchor, but it needs imagination, a sense of urgency and action if it is to bounce back.