News of the Oireachtas Environment Committee taking a shot at the government over its response to two natural disasters is a healthy sign of a well functioning democracy in Ireland.
Ireland really wasn’t riding its luck last winter. In November a massive “one in eight-hundred years” flood devastated the country, and shorty afterwards, in January, the country was literally frozen still by a protracted cold snap.
Despite the monumentally bad luck the government faced in having to cope with not one but two natural disasters in a winter, though, it didn’t exactly shine forth in brilliance with its response.
Being in Ireland both during the floods and the cold snap I saw first hand just how poorly the “authorities” dealt with both situations.
Salt ran out; rivers were flooded; people were airlifted; it was a mess.
Perhaps the most blackly comical moment of the whole episode came in Cork, when the ESB (Ireland’s national electricity company) made a bad situation worse by opening a dam floodgate which led to even more flooding in an already swamped city. Talk about planning!
That was funny in a 'only in Ireland' sort of way, unless, of course, you were one of the people being rafted down the quays by the fire service or found your car afloat the next day. Then, of course, the humour was well and truly lost on you.
And rightfully so, that blunder will be the subject of an “independent investigation” at some indefinite point in time, but then again the initial one into the whole fiasco ordered by the Minister for the Environment hasn’t been completed yet, as the thick of another winter looms just a few months away.
The ‘big freeze’, just over a month later, was another fantastic spectacle of governmental incompetence.
Returning home from America from a short stay, I found a country in devastation. Supplies of road gritting salt were almost completely depleted and the government was busy fussing over how to get some more salt and from whom, while some of the country's most important thoroughfares remained impassable.
It was hard to believe that lots of the roads around Cork simply weren’t being gritted because there wasn’t enough to go around. Yes of course, they "hadn't anticipated" this level of ice, global warming only made the world hotter.
The sight to top it all off, though, came after the ice had thawed, when I saw a massive truckload of gritting salt making its way hopelessly and uselessy to Tivoli Docks, presumably for storage for next winter. The much anticipated salt, apparently, had arrived too late.
Anyone Irish or foreign in the country, or perhaps reading about it for the first time now, would realize that something was seriously amiss here.
Yet how much have things changed?
Here’s an interesting experiment. Open up another tab, go to Google, and type in ‘Ireland emergency’, see what comes up, open another tab, then type in ‘NYC emergency’.
At least from what I have here in New York, the first result in the Ireland search is a Wikipedia entry about The Emergency in Ireland (WWII), followed by some newspaper articles, followed by a satirical comedy team.
The first result in the US search brings up the NYC Office of Emergency Management.
What does that tell you about Ireland's emergency planning?
Fortunately all hope isn’t lost. The very fact that the Oireachtas Environment Committee published a report is to be welcomed. So is the forthcoming one urged to be published by this November. The Minister for the Environment's response that the government did everything in its powers is merely to be expected.
It takes a man to admit his own faults, and it’s good to see that Ireland’s political class finally seems to have acknowledged - at least in some circles - that the management of the disaster was almost as big a catastrophe as the floods and ice themselves.
Perhaps we can hope for a more successful winter this time round; though I'm hanging on to any spare salt just in case!