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A man places a placard before a vigil remembering the victims of a deadly van attack at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on April 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

How Toronto is recovering from the van attack

We’re now one week out from the Toronto van attack and the city is still reeling from the impacts of the mass casualty incident. A new normal for Toronto started on April 24, the day after the attack.

What can we expect in the weeks and months ahead and beyond?

As an expert in disaster and emergency management at York University, not far from where the attack occurred, I’ve been making detailed observations at the scene in order to both document and understand the first week of disaster recovery for Toronto — a city that hasn’t often dealt with mass casualty disasters.

The field of disaster and emergency management provides us with a lens by which we can focus on and interpret what may happen next. The Emergency Management Plan for Toronto refers to recovery operations as a “co-ordinated process of supporting affected communities in the reconstruction of the physical infrastructure and restoration of emotional, social, economic and physical well-being.”

Organizing recovery

Given the unique nature of this intentional disaster caused by criminal behaviour, a unique group of stakeholders are now organizing a recovery process.

The disaster response efforts began immediately, during the first day of the attack. Response protocols related to the management of mass casualties guided the initial actions taken by first responders.

Crime scene investigation and cleanup activities were also rapidly implemented. Disaster response quickly transitioned into recovery on the day following the attack.

Ten people, eight of them women, died in the attack, and 14 remain hospitalized. Other than those killed and injured, other indirect forms of victimization include those who were directly exposed to trauma by witnessing the event.

Many witnessed carnage

In the Willowdale neighbourhood of Toronto’s North York area, where the attack occurred, the population density is more than 244 persons per hectare, with multiple skyscrapers of both residential and mixed-use office/retail. When the van attack occurred on a Monday afternoon at approximately 1:30 p.m. for seven minutes along a 2.2 kilometre path, hundreds, if not thousands, of bystanders witnessed the carnage.

For people who witness out-of-the-ordinary events, it’s normal to experience signs and symptoms of acute and chronic stress. However, only a few will develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which means the symptoms of stress persist beyond four to six weeks.

Read more: Violence in Toronto: How support can help prevent PTSD

In the first week after the disaster, it is clear that there was a psychosocial impact on the community, but it’s too soon to tell how the stress will manifest itself over the long term.

After the initial mass casualty response, it was determined that elements of the street landscape such as bus shelters, newspaper boxes, mailboxes and signs were damaged along the 2.2 kilometre path of the carnage.

The gruesome nature of the incident required crime scene cleanup. Crime scene investigation, cleanup and repairs to physical infrastructure took place in a massive concentrated effort during the first 24 hours after the incident.

The scene on Yonge Street near Finch Avenue the day following the van attack in Toronto. (Author provided)

The streets and sidewalks were reopened to business as usual (to the extent that was possible) on Wednesday, two days following the attack.

The physical recovery is complete. Today, with the exception of the disaster memorial sites, there are few if any physical signs of the van attack.

The same scene near Yonge and Finch two days following the attack. Author provided

Enhanced pedestrian safety

Four months before the horrors of the van attack on Yonge Street, one issue that was under consideration was the transformation of one of Canada’s most iconic thoroughfares. A city councillor described the street as “a sea of high-rise condos, tiny little sidewalks and a six-lane highway between it all.”

Urban planners and city council were considering a transformation of Yonge to a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly street. Proposals for lane reductions, additions of bike lanes, among other enhancements, were contested and were only in the planning and hearing stages at the city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee.

The issue of pedestrian safety on Yonge Street may now take on more urgency after the van attack.

From a risk perspective, the likelihood of one being killed in a terrorist-type vehicular attack while walking on the streets of Toronto remains minuscule.

On the other hand, the risk of pedestrian death and injury due to normal everyday accidents remains high.

By March 2018, 11 people had been killed this year on Toronto streets due to pedestrian accidents, putting the city on pace for an all-time high in terms of pedestrian death counts.

Perhaps a silver lining from the van attack could be increased pedestrian safety efforts in the community. Those efforts could also work to deter vehicular attacks in the future.

Disaster memorialization

Willowdale claims diversity as one of its strengths.

Disasters disrupt normalcy and tear at the social fabric. Resiliency counters those tears and attempts to repair them. In the disaster science domain, resiliency generally refers to characteristics that contribute to the ability to tolerate stressors and bounce back.

During the first week after the van attack, there have been clear examples of resiliency on Toronto streets, including the creation of temporary improvised memorials to the van attack. Memorials have sprung up at two city locations, Olive Park and the Mel Lastman Square Civic Complex.

Thousands gathered in Mel Lastman Square, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on the eve of the week anniversary to remember the victims.

Given the impact the van attack had on the city, I suggest a permanent van attack memorial, because disaster commemoration and memorialization are an important part of how a community recovers.

Disaster memorials can serve many purposes ranging from preserving the individual memories of the people killed to providing a space for collective memory to coalesce and remain.

The Olive Park memorial is especially interesting as it’s a growing site of healing.

The Olive Park memorial to the victims of Toronto’s van attack a few days after the incident. Author provided

The memorial was set up the evening of the disaster by a community member and remains as a completely grassroots effort. What started as a site of focus for the expression of grief and remembrance has transformed into a site of healing.

A group of fewer than 10 residents have taken on the responsibilities of upkeep and management of the site. Tentative plans exist for the memorial to remain in place for 30 days.

After that, a yet-to-be-determined process will guide the transition from temporary to the permanent.

From studying previous disaster commemorations and memorializations, including in the post-9/11 activities, we know there’s a possibility that such transitions can be fraught with controversy and ethical dilemmas.

But so far, one week after the attack, the Olive Park memorial remains a highlight of community recovery.

Looking ahead at a new normal

After a disaster, a “new normal” often emerges in the stricken community. This new normal can consist of changing some aspects of the community that were problematic in the pre-disaster environment and keeping other aspects of the community that worked well intact.

We’re already seeing improvised signs duct-taped to hydro poles, for example.

Hydro poles along the route of the van attack in North York. Author provided

Some signs are collages of portraits of those who died, encouraging solemn remembrance. Other signs are calls to action, promoting the community vigil to “Reclaim Yonge” to symbolically move past the tragic events. The recovery from the van attacks involves a balance of remembering the past while considering the future.

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