2015/04/06

Sister Cities of Disaster in the Spring of 2011: Comparing the Flood Victims in Fukushima and Manitoba

Some days it seems like the world has forgotten the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome (genpatsu shinsai in Japanese) that occurred in Japan in March 2011. Other days it seems like it gets more than its fair share of attention while other lesser known disasters unfold without gaining any attention from an international community.
From the blog of Manitoba member of parliament, John Gerrard
The physician Alice Stewart (1906-2002), a leading scientist who challenged the assumptions of the global nuclear establishment, first noted the need to incorporate an understanding of disaster trauma into studies of the effects of radiation. She faulted the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb studies for not taking account of the effects of disaster trauma on the populations being studied. In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people who would have suffered radiation effects were already dead from other causes when the official  Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) studies began in 1952--and radiation was likely a contributing factor in weakening the immunity of all these people who died from causes apparently unrelated to radiation.
Although these studies became the "gold standard" of reference for future radiation disasters, their flaws have long been demonstrated, as summed up by one scientist: it was a survivor population, doses were external, residual contamination was ignored, it began seven years after the event, [and] the original zero dose control group was abandoned as being 'too healthy'." [1] The faulty ABCC study is now applied to the displaced people in Fukushima, and their health outcomes will be attributed to a similar murky set of causes. 
Our contemporary understanding of genetics and trauma clouds this issue further now that we know trauma itself, not just radiation, can cause epigenetic effects across generations. [2] Alice Stewart seemed to intuit this when she pondered the compounding effects of trauma and radiation exposure. About the ABCC studies, she recounted to Gayle Greene in The Woman Who Knew Too Much:

…. those who’d survived the blast were already damaged—they were physically damaged by the high doses of radiation, psychologically changed by the trauma they’d lived through. My experience as a doctor has shown me that there are many types of trauma from which you never recover. You cannot recover. I saw from the London air raids that the people who went through those were never going to be the same—certainly not after five years. And there was no radiation in that story. I once read about a flood in Bristol—one of the few disasters that’s ever been studied: after the flood, the death rate from every cause went up. There was one death from drowning, but that was the least of it—there was this sort of generalized disaster effect, from shock, stress, infection, bad water. And you get this from a tiny disaster, without the added horror of radiation. Imagine the case in Hiroshima. [3]
 
The nuclear establishment never paid attention to this flaw in the A-bomb studies, but this didn’t stop them from becoming the “gold standard” upon which all radiation safety guidelines are still based to a large degree. Unfortunately, we still don’t appreciate the degree to which the hibakusha—in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima—are victims of multiple disasters layered one upon the other. The A-bomb victims were also victims of the sort of urban destruction that happened in conventional air raids. They were victims of the preceding decade of war, of famine, malnutrition, economic collapse, epidemics, a powerful typhoon that ripped through Hiroshima in September 1945, and a cold winter that followed. The 160,000 persons officially displaced by radiation contamination in Fukushima were also traumatized by the most powerful earthquake and tsunami of recent history.
Alice Stewart perceived the relationship between the trauma of a radiation disaster and the trauma experienced from other disasters. It's uncanny that she chose the example of the Bristol flood years before a major nuclear disaster came in the wake of a great flood in 2011. As the victims of Fukushima marked the fourth anniversary of their triple disaster syndrome, a small, now fragmented community in Manitoba, Canada was also passing its fourth anniversary in conditions very similar to people in Japan who have been living in a state of permanent transience since the day their lives were upended. In an uncanny way, they are a sister city to many towns in Northeastern Japan.
The people of the First Nations community of Lake St. Martin were forced to abandon their homes in the spring of 2011 when the provincial government made the deliberate decision to flood their community in order to save Winnipeg (population 664,000) from a greater flood disaster.
At the time, they were promised that they would be fully compensated during their temporary relocation, and a fully-funded new location for the town would be found without delay. Of course, plans went astray as soon as they set foot in Winnipeg. The community splintered as they were housed in various hotels and apartments around the city. With no jobs, and no experience living in an urban setting, people were adrift, especially young people who were not prepared to deal with Winnipeg’s mean streets. Federal, provincial and municipal bureaucracies tried to help, but things turned sour when a government official closed a deal for a new town site with an impatient seller. The land was purchased without the agreed upon consultation with the Lake St. Martin leadership, so they refused to resettle there.
The media occasionally checked in with the progress of the dislocated, and now web searches turn up headlines like these:

Deal for a New Lake St. Martin (Winnipeg Free Press, July 16, 2014)
There are Flood Victims in Winnipeg (Winnipeg Free Press, March 24, 2015)

The second headline above (Deal for a New Lake St. Martin) refers to a report that gives a short history of the years of scandal and disputes that finally led to an agreement on how and where to build the new community. However, an appalling aspect of the reporting in general is how it failed to portray the city of Winnipeg as in any way owing a huge debt of gratitude to the people of Lake St. Martin. The July 16, 2014 report in The Winnipeg Free Press reported:

Lake St. Martin was destroyed in the 2011 flood, forcing the evacuation of the entire population at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the federal government.

The reporting here emphasizes the cost to the federal government, implying a burden on mainstream society imposed by the land’s original inhabitants, yet it makes no mention at all of the fact that this was a forced evacuation done in order to prevent damage to the lives and property of hundreds of thousands of people in Winnipeg. It also fails to mention that damage started in the 1960s when a water management engineering project was built to protect Winnipeg from flooding. Like the people of Fukushima, they were treated simply as forgettable sacrifices for the urban population 200 kilometers away.
The people of Lake St. Martin had no choice in the matter, but they went along with the evacuation willingly, and agreed to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In every comment and report I’ve found on this matter, I haven’t noticed one person who asked that they be treated like heroes, but this begs the question: why weren’t they?
I dread to think about what the sentimental outpouring would have been like if Lake St. Martin had been populated by white people. Perhaps it would have been much the same. One could ask why there was no heroes’ welcome from the mayor of Winnipeg. Why was there no welcome mat put out by schools, business leaders, neighborhood associations, unions, or city councilors? Where was the big collective hug? If there was one, it sure was a well kept secret. 
Perhaps our cities have become nothing more than populations of alienated salaried folk preoccupied with paying the rent or the mortgage. If they hear something about some unfortunate souls who’ve come to town after losing their homes, why should they care? Tax payers hear that the victims are getting their hotel rooms and their monthly checks, so all is well, right? But maybe what they needed most of all was an embrace and a thank you from the city they saved from the great flood of 2011. 
But the people of Lake St. Martin had a close, interconnected community, and this is precisely something which city slickers have no comprehension of, so we can’t expect them to have empathy for the loss of genuine communal bonds and ties to the land. And thus it is that the Lake St. Martin story passes down the memory hole, barely noticed and misapprehended on the rare occasions when urban Canada paid attention to it. Nonetheless, it is a grim, small-scale reminder of the way you will be abandoned when some event in this age of dislocation comes to your town. What is in store for anyone, potentially, has been heralded by other such events this century: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (2010), the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster in Japan (2011), and Hurricane Sandy in the US Northeast (2012).

Further Reading:


The 48-minute film [Treading Water: Plight of the Manitoba First Nation Flood Evacuees] tells the story of Canadian Aboriginals who were moved off of their reserve... due to unprecedented flooding. 
In April 2011, Manitoba experienced a 1-in-350-year flood. In an effort to save the City of Winnipeg and other urban centers, unprecedented water levels were intentionally diverted through the Fairford Dam to Lake St. Martin. As a result, First Nation communities in the area were swamped, and 2100 people forced from their homes for what they thought would be just a few weeks. But weeks turned into months. And months stretched into years.
To this day, evacuees remain stranded, drowning in despair and stuck at a standstill, scattered in hotels and temporary housing throughout Winnipeg and Manitoba. They have no homes to go back to, and the displacement has triggered family breakdown, compromised education, stress and depression, and ultimately, increased substance abuse and suicide rates.
The people in the documentary are as frustrated as they are devastated, as they struggle with feelings of isolation, loneliness and dejection.



[1] Chris Busby, "It's not just cancer! Radiation, genomic instability and heritable genetic damage," The Ecologist, March 17, 2016.


[2] N.P. Kellermann, "Epigenetic transmission of Holocaust trauma: can nightmares be inherited?" Isreali Journal of Psychiatry Related Sciences, 2013, 50(1) p. 33-9. 

[3] Gayle Greene, The Woman Who Knew Too Much (University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 133.

UPDATE June 2015

"Lake St. Martin relocation plans 1 step closer to becoming a reality," CBC News, June 22, 2015.

This post was revised in March 2016.




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