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opinion

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction and adjunct professor of disaster and emergency management at York University.

Fiona made landfall in between Guysborough and the Canso area of Nova Scotia on the evening of Sept. 23 and into the early hours of the 24th – lashing large portions of Cape Breton Island with a violent trifecta of high winds, heavy rains and towering waves, before moving on to Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Though it is early in the assessment process (insured loss figures, for one, won’t be available for weeks), damage from the historic post-tropical storm is extensive, with roofs blown off buildings; trees down on houses and cars; piers, ports and boats destroyed; and structures washed out to sea. Critical public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and culverts, also took a beating.

On top of all that, power outages were extensive, with 400,000 customers without electricity in Nova Scotia and almost all of P.E.I. in the dark by the morning of the 24th.

Canada’s East Coast is no stranger to storms, but this one was different. North Atlantic hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with a Category 1 being the weakest and Category 5 being the strongest. Fiona made landfall as a low-end Category 3 that quickly degraded to a high-end Category 2 – not all that common an occurrence in Atlantic Canada, but not that rare either.

But there is more to hurricanes than just their rating. A vital (though technical) metric is surface pressure, which is important because it most often correlates to higher wind speeds (and property damage). In the mid-latitudes, that typically means that a low pressure centre is interacting with high pressure, leading to intensification of winds and expansion of the size of the storm.

Fiona’s surface pressure was measured at 932.48 millibars. No hurricane has ever made landfall with such a low pressure north of Florida since 1851. So Fiona will go down as the lowest pressured hurricane ever to make landfall in Canada.

It also means yet another record breaker for the country. In the past decade or so, Canada has experienced its costliest flood (Southern Alberta in June, 2013); its first back-to-back billion-dollar loss events (Southern Alberta flood/Toronto flood in June-July, 2013); its costliest wildfire (Fort McMurray in May, 2016); its costliest hailstorm (Calgary in June, 2020); and its deadliest heat wave (British Columbia in June, 2021).

These are the kind of records we don’t want to keep breaking. But there are several ways we can introduce and proliferate resilience into our built environment and into other aspects of our lives. Building codes can be improved, governments can offer incentives for other resilience measures and insurers can incorporate improvements into the restoration of properties damaged in severe weather events.

However, let’s focus on critical public infrastructure, which took a huge hit from both Fiona and the atmospheric river-related flooding that wreaked havoc in parts of B.C. in October of last year. It is becoming increasingly evident that such infrastructure can’t handle the extremes that our new climate change-driven weather patterns are throwing at it.

One of the first actions we need to take is stop creating new risk by designing and constructing critical infrastructure with climate change and future weather in mind. It doesn’t make any sense to build these assets for the weather we used to get – not when we expect these assets to still be in service many decades from now.

To start, governments (including public infrastructure banks), private banks, venture capital providers and other funders of infrastructure must hinge financing on the mandatory completion of recognized climate vulnerability assessments for all newly planned infrastructure and for major refurbishments of existing infrastructure. What’s more, the findings of these assessments must be acted on – just completing an assessment to tick off a box shouldn’t be enough.

In time, much of our critical infrastructure will be climate ready. Think of how when older vehicles go to the scrapyard, they get replaced with newer models with improved safety features; in time, most vehicles on the road will have these features, and this eventually is reflected in road death and injury statistics. Or consider how fire safety measures and information campaigns implemented over the decades have dramatically reduced the number of structure fires in virtually all industrialized countries worldwide.

We can do the same with critical infrastructure and with our homes and other assets. Climate vulnerability assessments exist (such as the Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee Protocol, or PIEVC) and we know how to build better for the weather of today and that of the future.

We know what to do – we just have to do it. It’s just about making the decision to be more resilient.

Editor’s note: This article incorrectly referenced Fiona’s surface temperature rather than its pressure. It has been corrected.