The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn followed many problems that predated the virus: international conflict, domestic turmoil, the global climate emergency.
Matthew Flinders, founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield, has described an emerging sense of “crisis fatigue”. Flinders defines crisis fatigue in part as “the tiredness that comes as result of the constant fear associated with repeated warnings about crisis, disaster or catastrophe.”
Such exhaustion might be familiar to the people of Fort McMurray. Midway through the last decade, a collapse in oil prices put many residents out of work due to the city’s heavy economic reliance on the oil industry. In 2016, the city faced a devastating wildfire which it is still recovering from.
Early in 2020, it suffered a major water treatment plant failure. Then the pandemic hit. In April the floods came—devastating the downtown area, wrecking buildings and cars and forcing many residents to evacuate their homes, including many who had suffered the same experience during the wildfire.
Scott Davis has personally witnessed the effects of these ordeals on Fort McMurray residents. As director of emergency management for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB), he has helped oversee the city’s response to ongoing crises, including the coronavirus and the flood.
“There are a number of members of the community that are just tired,” Davis says. “They’ve been through a lot. Some of them have rebuilt their homes after the wildfires and now they’re dealing with basements that were flooded out, and they’re just tired.”
Davis, however, has managed to keep his own energy up to help beleaguered city residents through their trials.
In part this is the result of the passion he holds for his work. Davis has 18 years of experience in emergency management, starting in public health as a pandemic influenza planner and later working in hospitals, municipal governments and academia.
“I’ve always noticed when times of crisis happen, I have immense clarity seeing a path forward…. I really enjoy helping others and leading teams in preparation, response and recovery,” he says.
Yet that spirit of perseverance is also grounded in his Christian faith.
A devout Anglican, Davis has been a member of Trinity Anglican in Lambeth, Ont.; St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; St. George’s Catheral in Kingston; and All Saints, Waterloo. He is currently a member of All Saints Anglican Church in Fort McMurray, where he has served as a people’s warden, rector’s warden and reader.
Davis says his beliefs have given him “faith in doing the right thing to prepare for, respond to, and recover from emergencies.”
“At various times throughout my career I’ve been troubled and faced personal challenges including layoffs,” he adds. “My faith has helped me get through these challenging times with a belief that everything would work out and there was a purpose of each step forward.”
In his current position, Davis helps relay messages from Alberta Health Services to the public while ensuring that procedures and protocols are in place for the continuity of municipal government.
Over the last few months, he has led the WMRB response team to COVID-19 as well as the team responding to river breakup and the resulting flood. The latter work included issuing evacuation orders, making sure evacuees were registered and sheltered while out of their homes and planning for recovery.
“Responding to one emergency is often taxing enough, adding a second is even more so,” Davis says.
Ensuring that evacuees, staff, and volunteers during the flood followed COVID-19 protocols requires extensive planning beforehand and throughout. Unforeseen events regularly make their tasks even more difficult.
In the middle of their flood response, for example, other areas of the RMWB experienced a train derailment and a wildfire. Fortunately, the derailed train did not contain any hazardous materials and Alberta Wildfire quickly put out the fire.
Davis’s position overseeing emergency response has puts him in regular contact with local churches.
Doug Doyle, chair of the Wood Buffalo Ministerial Association, says that Davis served as a liaison between churches and the Alberta government by answering questions from church leaders, providing guidelines and encouragement, and giving churches updates on cleanup efforts related to the flood. Davis also helped bring humanitarian aid organizations such as The Samaritan’s Purse, the Salvation Army and Red Cross into the city, making it easier for them to partner with congregations such as Doyle’s own Fort City Church.
In helping churches navigate through red tape, Doyle cites the example of Fort City Church needing to build an outside structure to serve homeless people for a brief period of time. When the church ran into obstacles gaining the necessary city permits, Davis expedited the process.
“He made it very easy for churches to partner with the city as they chose to care in the flood and provide relief work, cleanup work, things like that,” Doyle says.
When encountering people who had to quickly evacuate their homes both during the 2016 wildfire and the 2020 flood, Davis says a common question he heard was, “What have I done to deserve this?” In such cases, he directs individuals to social services or counsellors, or he encourages people of faith to reach out to their faith leader.
“It is a time of weariness, discouragement, where people are reaching out and looking for hope,” Doyle says of the current mood in Fort McMurray.
“You have the convergence of three things right now on the fourth anniversary of the wildfire. You have COVID-19, you have the oil price crash, and then you have the flood. It creates a level of despair and frustration, a bit of hopelessness.”
At the same time, he says, Fort McMurray is a city of “survivors”, who have repeatedly come together in the face of such crises. He points to the high number of volunteers who have come out to clean up homes affected by the flood.
“The amount of people turning up to help was incredible,” Doyle says. “On one hand, [Fort McMurray is] a city that’s feeling discouraged; on another, a city with a lot of fight in it and just a lot of generosity in it.”
In responding to people experiencing feelings of despair, he adds, local churches have been “pointing people to Jesus and talking about the reality of a broken world, and that ultimately he came to heal this broken world…. We get to help make the world better in anticipation of when the world will be made right.”
While helping Fort McMurray respond to these ongoing crises, Davis suffered additional stress when he learned that his father had died.
But here too, his work and his faith helped guide him through the trauma.
“There’s a sense of calm, because I know what my task is,” he says.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Ontario to deal with my father’s estate. But in the middle of that, the COVID, my father was very proud of what I was doing, so that’s a guiding light. And I really lean on my faith. That has carried me through as well.”
Many more stories remain to be told about Fort McMurray, a city where environmental and economic concerns reflect the most urgent global issues of our time. The Anglican Journal will continue to explore these stories in greater detail.