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McDONALD: Forget the camera, Mayor Basran, this flood isn’t about you

June 08, 2017 - 12:54 PM

 


OPINION


Unfolding disasters do strange things to people’s minds. Some people rush towards calamity, others flee from it and there’s no telling which way you will run until catastrophe strikes.

The pressure of the moment doesn’t necessarily inspire rational thinking.

One woman during the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire told me of running through her house full of valuables with just minutes to evacuate, gathering up a desk lamp, a winter coat and her toaster oven before fleeing the advancing flames.

But even given time to reflect, a luxury few disasters afford, doesn’t guarantee a clear head.

How else to explain the latest flood video from the City of Kelowna starring Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran?

No longer content to warn us about the impending flood or even implore us to shop local, Basran and the news apparatus at Kelowna City Hall have produced a full-length news-style video to tell us The Flood wasn’t their fault, that Mother Nature was to blame.

Wearing his now-signature pink disaster shirt, Basran “interviews” a couple of experts from Environment Canada and the B.C. River Forecast Centre, who run through a dizzying deluge of rainfall and snowpack numbers.

Their conclusion? A whole bunch of snow came late and melted fast.

The mayor then interviews Shaun Reimer from the provincial Ministry of Lands and Forests who helpfully explains the juggling act that goes into controlling the river dam at Okanagan Falls.

His conclusion? It’s not as easy as you think.

The video ends with city manager Ron Mattiussi suggesting to an off camera interviewer that anyone looking to pin blame for the flood is being “irresponsible” for doing so while the disaster is still unfolding.

The camera pulls back to show the interviewer is Kelowna’s Mayor, nodding in agreement with Mattiussi’s conclusion which is the same as the experts before them: we couldn’t have predicted this and it’s not our fault.

As a journalist, I found the whole video quite surreal. As a Kelowna taxpayer, I find it offensive.

Is it an exercise in covering your ass by a former TV personality with too much time on his hands? Or perhaps more ominously, an attempt to forestall lawsuits by disgruntled homeowners and businesses?

Now I’m not privy to the number of complaints directed at the city although I know they will have received dozens, their disavowal of blame notwithstanding. Same with Central Okanagan Regional District. A good proportion of them will be expletive-laden rants that could not be printed here.

Perhaps, in that echo chamber, the Mayor and his staff truly believe they are somehow being held to blame for the Okanagan Lake flood.

Personally, I haven’t heard or felt any groundswell of populist anger over the flood directed at Basran or anyone else. And I think your average Central Okanagan resident understands the sequence of events behind it is a lot more complicated than simply opening up the floodgates.

I also don’t know who at city hall is directing the video series, but as a journalist, I find them disturbing. They are edging into fake news territory, where those with a vested interest and the means to produce it, interview themselves.

Such obviously biased content runs the real risk of watering down trust in the critical information the emergency operations centre is there to dispense. Simply put, if they are going to spin me about who is to blame, maybe they are spinning me about everything else.

In an earlier video, Basran implores us to shop local and support tourist-related businesses suffering as result of “news of the flood” being spread by mainstream media, suggesting that reporting on the flood caused the drop in business, not the overflowing lake itself.

As a taxpayer, I think this is a serious case of overreach. Why are public funds being used to produce videos that have little to do with the disaster itself?

If Kelowna is open for business, let the Chamber of Commerce produce the video extolling its virtues. The mayor can star in it. If the city or the regional district are blameless (which I think they are), defend your actions in a real court, don’t do damage control in the court of public opinion.

As the face of the video series and the mayor of the city, one has to presume Basran has some control over the direction and content of the video series.

I hope he's not looking for his Zimmermann moment.

If you weren’t around for the 2003 fire, Kelowna Fire Chief Gerry Zimmermann, as he was then, emerged as the calm voice of reason during a turbulent time. His measured tone and openness with the facts made Zimmermann the go-to guy, the national face of the conflagration and one he later used to enter politics. Colin, maybe you should call Gerry for some pointers.

The Okanagan Mountain Park fire was also when the Central Okanagan emergency operations centre came to the fore as a reliable source of non-partisan information (a role it has so far most ably filled during the 2017 flood).

Kelowna's mayor and the emergency operations centre should stick to core messaging about flood control measures or risk having its most-trusted brand status lose meaning. Now that would be a real disaster.

Credit: City of Kelowna

— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at jmcdonald@infonews.ca

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