My career was in civil engineering. I worked at the municipal level. I’m sure my profession tinged how I see the world, but I believe it’s a considered view that is poorly served by popular media.

From the number of people who contribute to municipal public works, I know there many many others who have a similar outlook on how things fit together.

Recent reporting on a number of newsworthy failures leaves a lot to be desired.

1. The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state was one.

Onsite pictures mainly showed cars on the downed span deck and orange dressed “first responders” working to get the three people off and milling about

Pictures of the downed structure were limited to long shots of the truss and the first pier.

It wasn’t until days later that someone decided to show the cross member that was apparently struck.

2. The coverage recent Alberta flooding (a personal tragedy to be sure) was lacking in technical substance.

Most of the pictures were of inundated land with little context as to how far from the river and where within the floodplane.

As the water started to come down we were finally favoured with a picture that put some of the flooding in perspective. A small hamlet resident was standing on high ground viewing his former settlement surrounded by water and wetland. His comment was basically “I’m not going to live down there any more, I think I’ll build up here on the high ground. How much of the flooded areas are identified in floodplane?

An asside Many of the homes shown looked relatively new (size, appearance, chimneys of framed in stainless steel chimney sections). Why were those new residences even built in the floodplane?

3. The failure of the CPR Bridge in Calgary

The pictures again show close ups of the pier, the failed span end and rail cars plus the usual first responders reacting to things.

A simple pan across the structure to show the height of adjacent piers compared to the one that settled would illustrate the suspected problem much better.

4. Water, sewage plants and electric generating stations. We rarely see the municipal crews working to keep their particular infrastructure plant dry and functioning.

Its good background to show boats, trucks and first responders carrying people from flooded areas (usually areas that are mostly still backwater), citizens working sandbagging but not the work around critical infrastructure. This work is vital but seems to be an afterthought for popular news reporting.

5. This one’s a bit older – the La Baie landslide that killed people.

Most of the coverage showed a building (an old mill??) surrounded by rushing water. However, there were landslides and people were caught in the slides. The slide took place in July 1996.

It wasn’t until a year later did a magazine doing in depth investigating was the following reported.
– There was a landslide mapping done by the Province in 1978
– The local Official Plan (which guides development) dated 1992 did not include the susceptible areas
– The location of the house in which two people were killed was in one of the locations identified by the Province 25 years before

Sensationalism is not wrong, but it must be accompanied by sufficient considered news coverage and background to satisfy those of us who want to know not just the what, when and where but also the why.

The Plaidneck