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Red Cross president in Halifax talks lessons learned from Fort McMurray wildfires

Fort McMurray area wildfires in early May, 2016.
Fort McMurray area wildfires in early May, 2016.

As the first anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire approaches, the Canadian Red Cross’ president and CEO was in Halifax to share lessons learned from the most expensive disaster in Canadian history.

“Never could we have imagined that what took place in those first early days of the response would revolutionize the way the Red Cross works in disasters,” Conrad Sauvé told a crowd of invited guests during a luncheon at Halifax City Hall on Wednesday.

As the disaster unfolded last May, the Red Cross was asked by the Alberta government to register members of the community of Fort McMurray. This was a challenge, as the community had been completely evacuated.

“When evacuees fled they spread around the country, some evacuating to shelters in Edmonton and Calgary while others travelled across the country, many to here in Nova Scotia and throughout Atlantic Canada to stay with family and friends,” Sauvé said.

The organization’s team developed an online system that registered 80,000 people via 13 call centres across the country (including one in HRM).

“While registration is a vital aspect in any response, in the case of Fort McMurray it was a game changer. It paved the way for robust real-time needs assessment but also for the largest, fastest cash transfer ever done in Red Cross history,” Sauvé explained.

In the first week following the wildfires, the Red Cross raised $50 million. In two days, that $50 million was distributed via email cash transfers to the majority of those evacuated. Sauvé said many evacuees described the funds as a “lifeline” during an extremely difficult time.

“It’s a tremendous Canadian success story,” he said.

Gavin Giles, national vice chairman of the Canadian Red Cross board and a Halifax lawyer, said the silver lining that came from the disaster was the unprecedented response that has helped shape the way future emergencies will be dealt with in Canada.

“With disaster frequency on the rise and the annual spring flooding and then summer forest fire seasons almost upon us, the Canadian Red Cross has been putting a lot of thought into lessons from the Fort McMurray fires and other recent emergencies,” Giles said.

“Today is really about how individuals, governments, corporate Canada and community organizations can work together now to be ready for what is surely and sadly ahead of us.”

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