BENNETT: ‘Neighbourliness’ helped us through icy aftermath

It’s been 10 years since we lost 44 people in the SARS crisis in Toronto.

It’s been 10 years since over 14,000 people died in the heat wave in France.

Ten years also since Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago was released after years of field work, extensive interviews, archival research and his scholarly analysis of the 1995 heat wave in Chicago.

Klinenberg started with the question of why so many people had died at home alone.

He analysed why some neighbourhoods had far less mortality than others. Socio-economic status was predictably very important — air conditioning and the ability to get away. Older women did better than older men, because of their pre-existing social networks. But, surprisingly, he found that poorer people living in cohesive neighbourhoods, such as the Latino community, fared way better than would have been expected.

Robert Putnam has called that “social capital”.

Jane Jacobs called it “neighbourliness”.

Klinenberg was disturbed to find that commodity in short supply in too many parts of Chicago, where 750 people had died, mainly at home and alone.

In the aftermath of the Dec. 21 ice storm, Toronto has shown itself once again to be a city of neighbourhoods. Toronto has shown that its neighbourhoods are strong because of their commitment to looking after one another. Friends and neighbours checking in on those with special needs together with the rapid starting up of warming centres and the transportation to get people there has been life-saving.

In the 1950s, the Civil Defence Manual asked the question, “Do you know your neighbour?” It suggested that all of us need to know the person living on each side of us and across the street. It seems that Toronto has done really well.

Our “neighbourliness” kicked in.

We thank all the first responders, hydro and forestry crews, the volunteers at the warming centres and all those Wheel-Trans and TTC workers who transported those in need.

We also recognize the extraordinary efforts of the health care workers and personal support workers. We are grateful for the leadership of Premier Wynne, Emergency Measures Ontario, the tremendous team at City Hall and Toronto Housing, as well as the impressive efforts of our city councillors (particularly St. Paul’s councillors Josh Matlow, Joe Mihevc and Josh Colle). Toronto Hydro CEO Haines has demonstrated a professionalism that was honest and responsible.

There will be “lessons learned”, for sure. There are always things that can be improved to prepare for the next time.

I think nurse activist Cathy Crowe has valuable suggestions of how involving more public health and social work staff could better protect the most vulnerable.

She has also recommended better communication plans and an earlier door-to-door canvass to find those who either didn’t know about the warming centres or were underestimating their risk in staying home.

But Torontonians should be proud of the role each of you has played. Your neighbourliness has been truly amazing.

And life-saving.