No natural hazard event is too big to mitigate against

0 March 12, 2014 at 1:37 pm by

Whenever a large natural hazard event takes place and things didn’t quite go as desired (and they seldom do), you can bet that you will hear from certain quarters that the storm/flood/wildfire/earthquake “was just too big, there was nothing we could have done to lessen its impact.”

In the hazard research business, we have a technical term for this: ‘balderdash’.

While you almost always hear ‘it was just too big’ from certain folks, you will never hear this from the experts working in that field: engineers, seismologists, hydrologists, emergency managers etc. You will never hear that old pearl from the experts that work to mitigate the impact of hazard events simply because they know better. There are always actions that can be taken beforehand to prevent, or at least lessen the impact of, a hazard event, no matter how big.

What’s more, if we prepare for the really big events, we will, by proxy, already be prepared for the smaller events (though the reverse is not true, being prepared for small events won’t make you ready for the big events).

Hand-in-hand with “it was just too big” is the branding of the event as ‘really exceptional.’ Those who want to pass off their responsibility for failing to prepare want you to believe that the event was very rare or even unprecedented (and, sometimes, unlikely to ever occur again). Hence, the Slave Lake wildfire is called a ‘one off’, though it was the second large wildfire to strike a Canadian community in just eight years (one off generally means it’s only ever happened one time!). Another common move is to place an extremely high, unscientifically confirmed return period on the event, like calling a flood a 1 in 500 or 1 in 250 event, when it turns out it was less than a 1 in 50, for example.

We know that the propensity for large loss events always exists, and we know that if they have happened in the past, there is a good chance they will happen again. Whether large wildfires (Kelowna and Slave Lake), large ice storms (Icestorm 98 and Icestorm 2013), urban flooding (August 19, 2005 GTA storm and July 8, 2013 GTA storm) or something else, history often repeats – particularly when no steps are taken after the first occurrence to mitigate recurrences.

We must stop accepting the excuses that “it was just too big” and “it was an exceptional event”, accept the fact that big events can and do happen in Canada, and move forward with public policies and actions that will build resilience.

No more excuses, please, we know better.

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