A few realizations about natural disasters

0 December 20, 2017 at 4:18 pm by

If we expect to make any progress on the natural disaster risk reduction front, we are going to have to come to a few understandings.

Here are just a few of the things we will have to make peace with:

Natural disasters aren’t natural

The term ‘natural disaster’ (losses associated with an earthquake, windstorm, flood etc) is meant to differentiate an event from being ‘manmade’ or ‘technical’ (losses from a plane crash, derailment, chemical release etc). But with natural disasters, it’s important to distinguish between the hazard (the rain falling, the wind blowing, the earth shaking), and the disaster (when natural phenomenon intersect with and negatively impact the built environment). A hazard only becomes a disaster when an un-natural vulnerability is exploited by a natural phenomenon. Without the vulnerability (eg. where we build, how we build, lack of preparedness etc), the disaster wouldn’t be. Hence the belief by some that all disasters are, in effect, man-made.

When a natural disaster strikes, it’s all too common for people to wring their hands and bemoan the ruthlessness of Mother Nature. But natural hazards do not have to result in losses. Only the first part of the equation is Mother Nature, the rest is us.

Disasters are happening now and they are costing Canadian society dearly

Large and impactful natural disasters are not a far-off problem that we will have to come to terms with and plan for. They are happening now, and they are costing the country a great deal. The experience in Canada is essentially the same as in most every western developed nation: While deaths and injuries from natural disasters are going down, property damage and interruption (to economies, for example) are going up.

In the Canadian property and casualty insurance industry, we define a catastrophe as an event costing $25 million or more in insured losses, spread reasonably across the industry. When one adds up all such events from 2009 to 2016 the total is a whopping $14.2 billion. This does not include all the events that fall under $25 million, all the other day-to-day weather-related claims that are filed, uninsured damage, and all those things that are difficult to put a price on – like mental health and ecological damage.

The natural disaster problem in Canada is here, now.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about natural disasters

Sewer backup is always due to failure of public infrastructure and, thus, is always the city’s fault. Houses are lost in wildfires due to direct contact with flames from the forest; build away from the forest and you won’t get losses. Tornadoes can’t happen in cities. Overland floods only occur near bodies of water. Canada is at low risk for earthquakes. The list of fallacies goes on (and on, and on).

We won’t make any progress on reducing disaster-related losses if our intellectual foundation rests on a bed of misinformation and misconceptions.

The ‘return period fallacy’ isn’t helping

You can have three 1 in 100 year events three years in a row, or all in the same year, even the same month. Such an event does not mean that once it has occurred the clock is reset and you’re good for another 99 years. This fallacy gets repeated all too many times by the media and by politicians. It’s no wonder the average citizen has no idea what a return period is and what it means.

A return period is a measure of probability, not time. We need to educate people about what a return period is. Better yet, we need to come up with a better way of communicating probabilities of loss occurrences to people.

We need to get a better handle on where the risk is

At least two large loss events that occurred in the U.S. this year unfolded in surprising ways and resulted in losses that were not really contemplated before. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the massive flooding that hit Houston was inland – related to about five days of nearly non-stop heavy rainfall – and not coastal storm surge, which is common with strong hurricanes. In the case of the Tubbs wildfire in Northern California in October, a large number of the homes destroyed in Santa Rosa were located in the city’s ‘low wildfire risk’ area, a fair distance away from wildlands. Both of these events, each of which triggered multi-billion-dollar insured losses, underscored the point that we often don’t have a good handle on where real risk is. In Canada, for instance, most overland flood losses occur away from rivers, streams and other bodies of water. Many homes lost in the Fort McMurray wildfire were located a piece away from the forest edge.

It is clear that we need a new understanding of risk and better tools in which to analyze, judge, map and rate risk, else we will continue to be surprised by things we never thought possible.

Governments can’t and shouldn’t bear all the blame

Government inaction or misaction certainly plays a role in the magnification of disaster losses. However lack of action on private property by homeowners is equally, if not more, significant.

Homeowners must realize that not only can they do things on their properties to prevent at best, or mitigate at the very least, the impact of natural hazards; but a feature of their home or property may actually be the cause of damage. Indeed, some sources maintain that at least 60 per cent of all basement floods are caused by a problem on the private lot and have nothing to do with public systems.

Governments can do everything possible to prevent or mitigate the impact of natural hazards on society, but if nothing is done on the private property level, we won’t get anywhere.

Reducing property damage and preventing disruption to economies must become a goal of disaster risk reduction

Right now, the primary stated goal of disaster risk reduction programs is to save lives and prevent injuries. Fair enough. But we need to take these formal objectives and expand them to include reducing property damage and disruption.

As noted, loss of life and injuries from natural disasters are going down in most every industrialized country, but property damage and interruption are going up.

If we look at the Canadian National Model Building Code, for instance, the first goal is life safety. Again, no one can argue the validity of this goal. However reducing property damage is not included among the several other goals of the code.

It should be.

We have to stop making the same mistakes over and over (and over)

Recent headlines include reports that a developer wants to build a new subdivision in a flood hazard zone in Houston and news that the Quebec government has decided to allow reconstruction of homes in the most flood-prone part of Gatineau. In the case of the Fort McMurray wildfire, about 10 per cent of damaged structures have been rebuild to date, with a large number of them having vinyl siding.

We continue to thumb our nose at natural hazards, even after experiencing major losses.

Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Mitigation often doesn’t cost that much

Sure, mitigation can be costly, especially when doing earthquake and some major wind retrofits to existing buildings. But some mitigation measures are very low cost, and others are largely free.

First, it is less expensive to put mitigation measures into new builds at the time of construction. Hurricane straps are very easy to install and very cheap (about $150 to $200 for an average house) when a roof is first going on a structure. Backwater valves cost little more than the price of the valve itself (about $150 retail, less wholesale) when being put in at the time of construction. Backup sump pumps are not that much money, and battery backup power sources for sump systems only run about $300 or so. There are many other examples.

For existing homes, the cost of retrofits are generally higher, but many municipalities (about 25 by our count) have rebate programs to help homeowners pay for the cost of installing backwater valves, sump pump systems and to rehabilitate old sewer laterals.

From a wildfire perspective, many of the measures that homeowners can take to reduce the risk to their homes involves nothing more than a little elbow grease. Clearing the perimeters of houses of flammable materials is highly effective, yet has virtually no cost associated with it.

Governments need to incentivize disaster risk reduction

While about 25 local governments in Canada offer rebate programs for backwater valves and such, that leaves thousands that don’t (there are 444 municipalities in Ontario alone).

It is crucial that governments offer incentive programs for mitigation, as insurance premium discounts aren’t significant enough to drive practice change. Governments have access to tools that insurers and others don’t have access to, like sales tax and income tax rebates. These can be powerful movers.

Both the federal government and many provincial governments have, at one time or another, offered rebates for energy efficiency improvements. It would be a positive step to offer something similar for resiliency.

If the carrot doesn’t work, use the stick

Incentives are the carrot. Laws and bylaws, including building code changes and such, are the stick. We need both.

Even when people know the risk, they don’t always do the right thing. These people may include developers, home builders, politicians, homeowners, insurers and others.

Codifying things helps to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and also that laws, rules, codes and guidelines reflect current knowledge about risk and mitigation.

Such things as building codes work.

Disasters are not inevitable

As noted, natural hazards are more or less inevitable (save for such things as human-caused wildfires and resource extraction-related earthquakes, aka fracking). Generally speaking, we can’t stop the wind from blowing, the rain from falling or the earth from shaking.

We can, however, remove some vulnerabilities and reduce others. And while we can’t completely prevent hazards from becoming catastrophes, we can take a big bite out of the damage and disruption caused by them.

We often see the catastrophic impact of disasters in developing countries, where loss of life, injury and economic impacts tend to be far greater than they are in industrialized countries. This is not because the hazards are worse, but because vulnerability is greater (for various reasons). Thus, we have already shown that the impact of natural hazards can be greatly tempered.

We just have to take it further, a fair bit further.

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