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glenn mcgillivray

When Fort McMurray was hit with flooding last week, residents of the beleaguered city no doubt wondered what they did to deserve yet another natural disaster. First, much of the community is lost to wildfire, then "biblical" rains (a reported 85 millimetres in two hours) flooded roads and seeped into basements.

But truth be told, Alberta has been ground zero for catastrophe losses in Canada in recent years.

So far this year, six out of 10 natural disasters (events that caused a minimum $25-million of insured damage) have taken place in the province, with the biggest currently sitting at $3.6-billion insured. Seven of the top 10 costliest natural catastrophes in Canadian history have occurred in Alberta, generating $8.2-billion in insured damage and considerably larger economic losses. All have occurred since 2009.

So the question invariably arises: Why Alberta?

Natural disasters occur when a hazard intersects with vulnerability, and Alberta is no stranger to hazards. With its unique position on the leeward side of the Rockies, partly in the foothills and largely on the central plains, where cold, dry mountain air often collides with warm, moist air from the south, powerful convective storms often bring heavy rains, high winds (including tornadoes) and hail.

The province is also marbled with large rivers, many of which originate in the Rockies, where snowmelt can combine with rainwater to bring extreme flooding of the kind seen in Calgary and area in 2005 and 2013.

Additionally, with nearly half of the province covered in boreal forest, there is the potential for major wildfires such as those in Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray this past spring.

Alberta, it seems, gets it all.

But hazard does not directly equate to loss. The second piece of the puzzle involves vulnerability, and much of Alberta is, indeed, vulnerable. Many large communities sit in "hailstorm alley" and in areas with a higher likelihood of tornadoes. Some communities are in the boreal forest, and many assets are on floodplains.

So while we cannot stop the wind from blowing, the rain from falling or lightning from igniting the boreal, we most certainly can take action to prevent a natural event from intersecting with the built environment and becoming a disaster.

The next question, of course, is how.

The answer lies in the implementation of a holistic program for natural-disaster mitigation that involves many stakeholders, including all levels of government, academia, private industry and property owners.

Elements of the plan would have to include risk-based urban planning to ensure that communities are not located in high-risk zones, such as in the wildland urban interface in the case of wildfire, or on floodways or floodplains. Building codes, too, would need to be adjusted to include resiliency features in all new construction.

Governments would need to make significant investments in public infrastructure and programs (including education). Funding must be forthcoming in the areas of storm-water management and flood control, but also in programs like FireSmart Canada, which provides information to communities on how to prevent or limit fires, that would oversee fuels management in forests, neighbourhoods and on private property.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that owners of private property will need to embrace the use of mitigation measures. One of the biggest challenges with reducing the risk of disasters in Canada is that, when confronted with damage from severe weather, homeowners often pass blame and responsibility to others– usually the government.

"I pay my taxes, fix it," is an all-too-familiar refrain. But what homeowners often do not realize is that governments can take every action on the public-property and policy side of things and the disaster could still play out the same way.

Scores of homes survived in Fort McMurray in otherwise decimated neighbourhoods. Why? A researcher for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), who investigated the phenomenon shortly after the fire, found clear evidence that how people landscaped and maintained their private properties played an overriding role in preventing ignition by embers, determining survival rates of homes.

In ICLR's work on prevention of sewer backup and basement flooding, researchers have found that up to 60 per cent of basement flooding is caused by a problem on the individual lot (such as tree roots or coagulated cooking grease in sewer laterals, collapsed foundation drains and poor landscaping) and has absolutely nothing to do with the public infrastructure. Yet without even knowing the cause of a basement flood, homeowners almost always blame their local government. The problem ends up going unaddressed, only to reoccur at some future time – and the cycle repeats.

The need to get homeowners to realize the key role they play in protecting their biggest asset represents the largest single gap in the management of disaster risk in this country.

This must be addressed if we have any hope of taming the trend toward more and larger losses related to severe weather in Alberta.

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.