We are not quite half-way through 2019 and yet Canada has already experienced multiple, simultaneous extreme weather emergencies, including the Ottawa River flooding and a tornado touching down East of the city. Wildfires are again burning in Alberta, a reminder of the 2016 wildfire that destroyed much of Fort McMurray. Northern Ontario communities are already facing evacuation due to the proximity of fires to their communities. Canadian communities are undoubtedly experiencing the global rise in frequency and severity of natural disasters.
The obvious question is: How can we better prepare? Simply put, we need to proactively acknowledge the risk of natural disasters and invest in mitigation and preparedness.
There are two vital elements to improving emergency management preparedness: 1) taking a systems-based approach, and; 2) using integrated science-based modelling to better understand risk.
The Cost of Mitigation and Preparedness vs. Cost of Recovery
Experts tend to agree that for every dollar invested in mitigation, adaptation and preparedness, savings of up to $6 in the response and recovery can be achieved. In Canada we have seen even greater savings in projects like the Winnipeg Floodway. The Winnipeg floodway cost $63 million to build in 1963 and was modified for another $665 million in the 1990s. As of 2013 the floodway had saved an estimated $32 billion in flood damage costs over its lifetime. This means estimated savings of $44 for every dollar of floodway investment made.
Investments in mitigation and preparedness can take many forms: re-building infrastructure stronger than the “100-year event” standard, pre-positioning physical measures in high-risk areas, and investing in diversionary measures in areas where risks are well-defined and understood.
In addition to physical mitigation efforts there is also organizational preparedness – or preparing those who must respond. Depending on the scale of the disaster, a response may require resources from the province or even the federal government. For instance, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has been responding to an increasing number of disasters. To improve preparedness, all stakeholders need to plan and train for regional risks. This includes local first responders, emergency managers, community-based volunteer groups, and anyone else willing to help with recovery.
Preparedness means reducing the period of confusion when a disaster strikes to bring immediate focus where needed. This enables faster response, transition to recovery and resumption of normal life for the community. Integrating all response groups – including voluntary organizations – is essential to accelerating the pace and effectiveness of response.
Better preparing Canadian communities for disasters requires a shift in emphasis from response and recovery toward mitigation, preparedness and adaptation.
Science-Based Risk Models
Understanding the risks of natural disasters in different regions is essential to taking appropriate mitigation measures. Risk modelling tools could include the integration of science-based predictive models with Geographic Information System (GIS)-based environmental and operational maps (e.g., water quality, land-use, financial liability or economic risk, watershed characteristics, dams, hydrometric data, snow survey sites, climate change) to forecast the risk of floods, fires and ice storms, and to complement or add to that knowledge with spatial analyses and/or data from past disasters. The result would be an integrated GIS-based predictive map that uses available data and knowledge on terrain and weather to simulate a range of possible outcomes based on a series of inputs.
For emergency managers and emergency planners, scenario-based experimentation is essential to planning for possible outcomes. By manipulating variables like expected rainfalls and warmer weather (and faster-melting snow), emergency planners can visualize a range of scenarios and optimize planning. This would allow for the pre-positioning of breakwaters and sandbags, execution of rehearsals and mobilization of volunteer networks.
The outputs of an integrated science-based predictive map would provide the visualization needed to facilitate public comprehension and to better understand their own risk. Current risk assessments are generally well understood by emergency planners and environmental scientists, yet they may not be appreciated by home owners and the public. The public should have access to detailed information about the nature of the risk, its impacts, and what can be done to better prepare.
Integrated predictive maps can also help the public clearly see high-risk areas and how the risk will manifest. Predictive maps can could show how high the water will rise in a flood; where the fire could burn; or for how long the power could be knocked out. The outcome of a natural disaster should be clear to the public to emphasize how people and communities would be affected.
There is a cost to developing and working with models. Data models need to be built and constantly revalidated, data from multiple sources collected, visual analytics products developed for the public, and decision-makers and planners briefed on possible outcomes. Much of the data for these models is available and collected by federal, provincial or municipal agencies.
The cost of integrating these risk models and maps will inevitably be lower than the cost of response and recovery. In Dunrobin, west of Ottawa, the clean up for the flood of 2019 will include cleaning up the last of the 2018 tornado debris. Fort McMurray is forever changed from the wildfire of 2016. Homes destroyed by fire and floods have displaced entire communities and forever changed their attitudes and fabric. The question surrounding these social costs cannot be ignored or measured in the same way as financial costs.
Houses can be rebuilt. However communities cannot fully return to their previous state.
Emergency response truly requires a “whole of society”’ and system-wide approach, meaning all levels of government, with of the involvement of industry, academia, local volunteer organizations and affected residents in disaster planning and preparedness. Deliberate investment in mitigation and preparedness measures and more informed planning through the use of risk modelling tools will help communities better understand and prepare for the inherent risks resulting from the ever increasing natural disasters.
Richard Moreau is Director of Emergency Management Solutions and Dr. Adrienne Ethier is Senior Scientist, Emergency Preparedness at Calian Group.