Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery
How Urban Systems Helps Communities Prepare for and Recover from Natural Disasters
In a world that’s warming, natural disasters are on the rise. Since 1970, the number of worldwide disasters has more than quadrupled to around 400 a year. Recent reports predict we’re in for warmer winter days, fewer days below freezing and more intense summers—all precursors to extreme weather events that can wreak havoc on many of the communities that Urban Systems serves.
As climate change progresses, we’re apt to see more heatwaves, fires and floods. Take bushfires for example. The fire season across the globe has extended by 20 percent since the 1980s. The recent California wildfires have been massive (three quarters of the biggest fires have taken place over the last two decades according to National Geographic) and resulted in $24 billion in economic damage last year alone. In much of Western Canada, smoke filled summers have become a reality. Since the 1970s, the area of forest burned in Canada has doubled, and giant fires (such as those in the Northwest Territories in 2014, Fort McMurray in 2016, and in British Columbia over the past two years) are on the rise. At the height of the crisis in 2017, BC’s fires forced approximately 65,000 people to evacuate their homes and more than 1.2 million hectares of land were scorched.
Reports suggest we can expect to see more extreme fires like these in years to come, and indeed 2019 is already host to elements like drought, El Nino and a lazy jet stream, which could all play into powerful weather events. The warmer the temperatures are, the drier the forests become.
And there are cascading events too. For example, because of recent blazes in British Columbia, trees that had been absorbing water were lost. When root systems are burned, it can lead to hydrophobic soils—water running on the surface of the ground. Heavy rainfall then causes mudslides, which is exactly what happened in 2018 when a heavy-rainfall-turned-mudslide knocked a vehicle off the highway in Cache Creek in an area that had been hit by wildfire in 2017. These interconnected events have far reaching impacts.
Before, During and After a Disaster
So what are communities to do? And how does Urban Systems figure in as a community’s partner in disaster risk reduction and recovery?
Donalda Ritchie, Community Consultant and Project Manager at Urban uses the example of a typical family’s disaster plan.
“Your family is told to pack a bag for two weeks minimum, but how many have actually done it? Communities the same. Often, they don’t know where to start or don’t have capacity to consider risk reduction or develop a thorough emergency preparedness plan, so they end up just responding in the moment and do better next time. But then the next year comes and they’re still handling the year before. Communities are often not equipped to plan ahead and are thrown into it; they simply do their best to learn from their lessons in the past.”
This is where Urban can step in to help clients take the long view—to understand, assess and help mitigate the exposure for risk in natural disasters, and assist to build resilient communities. Donalda explains that the interdisciplinary professionals at Urban, from engineers to administrators and everything in between, have a unique line of sight into a disaster’s cascading impacts on community.
“Urban is positioned well to help in a variety of ways, from facilitating discussions and providing geographic information to providing mapping and traffic planning in advance. With deep experience with local, provincial, and federal government, we can also help maximize financial recovery during community restoration.” This support is particularly crucial for smaller communities that might not have the resources in place or even know what legislative funding is available.
“Extreme weather events are the norm now. There are so many elements we can help with, from assisting communities to understand their risks and asset data management and create community recovery plans after an event and liaison between communities and government to access the eligible financial recovery. For example, our recent flood recovery work in Peachland started with an inventory of damage and went all the way through to project management, design work, project site supervision, contract administration and financial claims management. These activities were also coupled with asset inventory collection of their storm system to better understand potential future mitigative efforts.”
With the outlook on the horizon suggesting more frequent extreme events, Urban Systems is continually ramping up offerings to support our communities in disaster risk reduction. “We have incredible folks here with diverse skills and training who can enhance resiliency and recovery capacity in communities. Building resilient communities in front of natural disasters lines up perfectly with our higher calling—spirit in service of vibrant communities.”