Canada’s not ready for a future of massive storms

Floodplain maps are out of date, insurance is inadequate and few of Canada’s cities are prepared to deal with the looming crisis

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Canadian soldiers inspect a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 7, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canadian soldiers inspect a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 7, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Canadian soldiers inspect a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Que., May 7, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Elderly people in wheelchairs with waters to their knees. A woman and her her baby cradled in the arms of a rescuer. Deluged streets. Decimated skylines. There is no shortage of striking, painful images when major storms like hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit cities.

But perhaps the most important way to capture the devastation of these storms isn’t the image of a survivor, a rescuer or the seemingly floating roofs of homes. It’s an insurance graph.

In both Canada and the U.S., the visual is stark: a clear, curving line of catastrophic ($25 million or greater) losses from natural disasters headed in only one direction: up.

READ MORE: Hurricane Harvey captured from outer space

Climate change is increasing extreme weather across the globe, and any city-dweller watching Houston’s flooding might have thought of Katrina or the flooding in Quebec this past year, or Calgary and the Greater Toronto Area in 2013. Many are likely asking: Is my city next? Or, as I put it to Blair Feltmate, the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo and chair of the federal government’s newly announced Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Results: “Are we all screwed?”

“The language I use is far in excess of that,” he countered. “Canada has not had flooding compared to that which is coming.”

Feltmate’s new job for Environment and Climate Change Canada—which had the eerie timing of being announced on the day Harvey’s rainfall broke U.S. records—is based entirely on that certainty, on “preparing for the big storms that are for sure coming.”

If it sounds apocalyptic, Feltmate is making no apologies. He has seemingly endless energy and fervour, rattling off statistics from 10 years’ worth of work trying to understand just how vulnerable we all are, and what we can do about it.

It’s not just global warming that he worries about—it’s our resistance to change and invest now to build cities that won’t lose everything when it’s their turn. His pronouncements are almost like those of a preacher who, after proclaiming the truth for so many years, finally, in the wake of so many devastating storms over the last decade, has an audience willing to listen. “Every day we don’t adapt,” he said, “is a day we don’t have.”

Feltmate described a survey he recently held with the presidents and CEOs of 15 major property/casualty insurance companies in Canada. He wanted to know, essentially, what keeps them up at night. “They said, although the Calgary storm, the Toronto storms of 2013, and other storms are happening, their question is what do we do when the $15 to $25 billion storm hits the Fraser Valley and takes the Port of Vancouver off the map?”

Or any city, for that matter.

“For the country as a whole, are we prepared? No,” he said. “Are we getting prepared? Yes. Are we getting prepared fast enough? No.”

RELATED: How Canadians can help victims of Hurricane Harvey

Since the 1980s, “property and casualty insurance payouts from extreme weather have more than doubled every five to 10 years,” according to a 2016 Insurance Bureau of Canada report. From 2009 to 2016, the primary cause was flooding. Over the same period—“and 2017 is on track for this,” Feltmate said—catastrophic losses have been over $1 billion a year.

And yet, until 2015, Canada was the only G8 nation without overland flood insurance—essentially coverage for water that comes into your home—according to the Insurance Institute of Canada. Not only that: “One of the things categorically out of date for almost every city are the floodplain maps,” Feltmate said, by a factor of 20 to 25 years. “We do not know where water is going to go when these big 100-, 200-year storms hit.”

And while hail, fire, drought, snow loading and shoreline erosion are also clearly devastating—B.C. or Fort McMurray will come to mind—flooding is “the big one.”

Meanwhile, municipal stormwater management remains severely underfunded across the country, something David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, argued is all about false security. “Climate change does not create weather, it makes it more extreme,” he said. “You’re not going to get typhoons in Saskatoon or sandstorms in Ottawa,” but the storms people grew up with are changing.

He sees both denial—the sense that we’ll be somehow immune to major storms—and something perhaps even more worrisome: “People think they’ve been hit once, they won’t be hit again,” he said. “I’ve talked to city councillors and mayors who feel, well we’ve had our 100-year storm, we’re not going to get another one.”

A 100-year storm is a measure of a one per cent chance every year for 100 years, not a guarantee for another 99 dry years. But more importantly, the climate has changed: That 100-year storm could now be more like a 20-year storm. “In other words, get used to it,” he said. “It’s not going to be once in a lifetime.”

Much, in that case, needs to change.

READ MORE: Is Hurricane Harvey a harbinger for Houston’s future?

Elected officials—and all of us, really—need to ditch what Feltmate calls a “management by disaster mentality” and begin to design our cities with extreme weather in mind. As it stands, our dense, highly paved and less water-absorbent metropolises make floods more expensive and dangerous. And so does, ironically, our relative wealth. The more you have, the more you have to lose, the more expensive a recovery becomes.

Some cities are doing better than others. Ottawa is fairly ready for extreme weather events and flooding, Feltmate said. Toronto and Calgary are improving, after their big floods. “I find cities have to be hit at least twice in a couple years’ time frame to get the point that we need to prepare for this stuff,” he noted.

And despite the common assumption, Feltmate argues, especially for new construction, it’s not much more expensive to design for climate change and extreme floods—and the payoff down the road could be enormous. An upcoming report done by his group at Waterloo estimates cities that maintain natural infrastructure, like parks and trees, can reduce costs associated by major floods by about 30 to 40 per cent.

And so, enter Feltmate’s new Environment and Climate Change Canada job. The expert panel has five goals, he said: Collecting current scientific research and getting that information into the hands of communities; determining key infrastructure vulnerabilities and how to address those; and determining especially vulnerable communities and how to help them. They’re investigating the mental health impacts of extreme weather, and losing everything you own. The Consumer Federation of America estimates only one in five Houston homeowners had flood insurance, “and most of their homes will be uninhabitable,” Feltmate said. “They simply will not have the money to correct this. And where will they go to live?”

The last goal is updating the floodplain maps. Feltmate thinks the country has turned a corner in the last few years, that we’re finally ready to talk about climate change not just in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but shifting our own behaviour and building our communities to meet future risks.

Extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey and now Irma are a “call to arms to embrace adaptation all the more aggressively,” he charged. It’s not that we can save all we have built—adaptation means mitigating future damage, not avoiding it altogether. But a measure of salvation, and in Feltmate’s estimation, quite a lot, is possible.