April 29, 2019 5:00 pm

Having politicians on the ground at disasters can help — but it can also hurt, experts say

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was confronted by an unidentified man who accused him and his people of blocking the roads and slowing down sandbagging operations on Saturday — though his office later said that traffic had not been blocked.

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There can be a lot of benefits to having politicians on the ground at emergencies like floods or wildfires, disaster mitigation experts say.

But they should be on the peripheries of the disasters, not right in the middle of them.

READ MORE: ‘What you’re doing is insincere’ — Trudeau accused of delaying sandbagging amid Ottawa flooding

“I think it’s important the prime minister or other leaders show up in these situations but where they have big security details, I don’t believe they should be right in the middle of the area that’s at the greatest degree of risk at that point in time,” said Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

“They can be on the periphery of the locality, having a presence there and serving the situation but not getting directly in the way of the recovery efforts or risk mitigation efforts.”

WATCH: Eastern Canada struggles to deal with historic flooding


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Eastern Canada is facing significant levels of flooding in parts of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick as the spring thaw melts what was left of winter.

Thousands of homes have been damaged by the rising waters, which are not expected to crest for at least another day.

Canadian Forces members have been deployed in the thousands as well to assist with evacuations and help to fill sandbags to hold off the water.

READ MORE: 5 of the worst floods in Canadian history

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined in with his two young sons but was confronted by a volunteer who said his security detail meant no one could get close enough to pick up their sandbags and accused him of delaying the mitigation efforts.

The incident took place in Constance Bay, the west Ottawa community hit hardest in the area so far by the flooding.

The volunteer accused Trudeau of being there for a “photo op” and said he was “insincere” for holding up the work.

Feltmate said those concerns are not necessarily unfounded.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau helps fill sandbags amid flood concerns in Ottawa

“In my opinion, it’s disingenuous. It’s a little bit too in your face,” he said.

“If I was prime minister, I would be out there, too, but … I would never be in a location where I’d be stopping progress relative to the flood that’s on the ground at that moment.”

Josh Bowen, who teaches emergency management at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, has been on the ground at natural disasters himself as a former member of the Canadian Forces.

He says the most important thing is for politicians to be aware of the resources and needs on the ground.

“From a policy side of things, keeping a politician informed of ongoing efforts is critical to ensuring that they understand the resource requirements and requests, and that really makes it so much easier for emergency management personnel to do what they have to do,” he said.

Bowen said the primary benefits of having politicians come out to areas experiencing disasters are raising national and international awareness about the issue and also helping to draw in more donations to the organizations working to mitigate the damage.

That’s true even if they cause disruptions, he said.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau tours Gatineau flood evacuation centre

“It’s always good to have more people out and sometimes when you bring a large entourage, it can be a bit of a disruption but in terms of the overall impact, it is so valuable to raise awareness,” Bowen added.

James Stanton, president of the emergency management consultancy Stanton Associates, was more skeptical and called the appearance by Trudeau “foolish.”

“Not sure who is giving him advice, but they should shake their heads,” he said.

However, he said there clearly seems to be a co-ordinated response to the flooding and that it is good to see “no one is playing the blame game.”

“They are getting on with response and resolution,” he said.

Floodwaters along the Ottawa River are expected to crest on Wednesday or Thursday.

The City of Ottawa has declared a state of emergency along with the City of Montreal and smaller municipalities around both cities.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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