A year in disaster recovery

Dave Demos
Friday December 01, 2017
Written by Dave Demos
Disaster response teams faced huge challenges in 2017 with massive efforts across North America fighting and recovering from wildfires, and preparing for and mitigating hurricane damage. All disaster-management specialists, including first responders, search and rescue crews, security teams and relief workers have had their hands full.

Forest fires devastated both remote areas in British Columbia and residential areas in California. The extreme Atlantic hurricanes hit businesses and homeowners alike, some of whom will require years to recover. Meanwhile, as past floods still haunted regions across this country, 2017’s high-water warnings kept Canadian communities on alert for months.

Following catastrophic events, disaster restoration companies are regularly at the forefront, oftentimes providing resources and support to first responders directly. Through this last year, FirstOnSite had first-hand perspective from inside disaster zones, both protecting and restoring critical infrastructure. Here are some key observations from the past year.

Hurricanes

Our team members have been involved with hurricane response for more than 20 years in both the U.S., and Canada. On average Canada is impacted by a hurricane at least once a year. When these systems make landfall here in Canada they are usually no longer hurricanes, but can remain powerful storm systems.  

While this year’s onslaught of Irma, Harvey and Jose seemed almost unprecedented, one thing that we are finding is that our commercial customers are better prepared than ever. The events themselves are no less devastating, but our customers approach their disaster recovery planning with greater education and preparedness than they did years ago. Those in Texas (especially Houston) and all over Florida have been extremely busy, and this more sophisticated understanding is especially helpful for both us as a service provider, and for our customers themselves.

A second observation from our perspective has to do with insurance. In terms of hurricane insurance, across North America the landscape has changed, and businesses are seeing higher and higher deductibles, sometimes as high as five to six per cent of property value. Our customers also are having to factor these costs into their recovery planning.  

Flooding

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that the industry pays $1.7 billion each year in claims due to water damage. But also consider that the combined losses for the 2013 Calgary and Toronto floods alone were $3 billion.  Add to that the fact that 1.8 million Canadians (five per cent of the population) live in elevated risk flood zones. Last spring, rains and rising waters in Quebec affected 286 municipalities in 15 regions, and saw flooding in more than 5,300 homes and businesses.

We are seeing ever heightened awareness and contribution not only by businesses and relevant service professionals in those regions, but also by a much broader community. For example, in October, scientists and experts from around the world gathered in Montreal for a flood resiliency forum to discuss how to prepare or avoid a repeat of this past spring’s floods.

Additionally, the after-effects of flooding can include not only property damage, but mould. Mould can have severe long-term negative health effects on the occupants of a facility. Curiously, mould regulation exists in some regions in the U.S., but not in Canada.  

One outcome we are seeing as a result of flooding events is an increased availability of overland flooding insurance for Canadian businesses and homeowners. Also, our customers are seeing loss prevention and additional security measures as increasingly important to address potential looting incidents in the aftermath of an event.

Wildfires

Over a year has passed since the devastating fires that ripped through Fort McMurray, Alberta and as that community returns to normal, B.C. was hit with the largest series of wildfires in provincial history. The B.C. fires displaced 65,000 people, destroyed more than 1.2 million hectares of forest and are having a significant impact on the tourism businesses.

As an early responder at both fire events, we have an opportunity to reflect on how two of Canada’s most impactful natural disasters played out and recognize observations we can learn from.

Significant difference in the events were twofold:

•Ft. McMurray disaster response services focused on the one community and as such response providers were able to work within a relatively clear communication channel and plan. The B.C. fires, on the other hand, took place across many smaller towns and settlements, each experiencing different degrees of fire and smoke damage. Response services faced a different challenge, responding across a broad geography and varied needs from town to town.

FirstOnSite, for example, set up a staging area in Kamloops and worked on 130 different projects, managed by a variety of different authorities.  

•The smoke itself generated by the Ft. McMurray fire was largely made up of urban ash (the result of burning plastics, metals, chemicals etc.), and could potentially have been very hazardous. The smoke produced by the B.C. fires was a result of burning forests. While still causing significant air quality issues, the smoke produced was less toxic. In B.C., our work primarily focused on assisting in air quality management and restoration.

One key evolution we are witnessing at every event is an ever-increasing use of drone technology to help assess damage and plan response requirements early on.

Earthquakes

There is a minor earthquake in B.C.’s Lower Mainland almost every day, and research predicts a one-in-three chance that a massive quake will hit the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years.  

We see that jurisdictions on the west coast are increasing their preparedness for these events. In fact, in October, the B.C. Earthquake Alliance, Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) and Science World presented Canada’s largest earthquake preparedness drill for businesses and residents province wide.  
Our work is property restoration, and we are required to restore and rebuild “to code.” From this perspective it is interesting to note that The Building Act of 2015 has been modernized in western Canada to address these risks, but many other areas in Canada have yet to update building codes.

Building and ensuring disaster resilient communities

There is plenty of discussion around disaster resilience. How can we protect, prepare and build communities to be more resilient? Here are some of the strategies we see being employed:

•New building technology with paperless materials, mould resistant materials, and more sustainable materials such as steel-shake roofing are being utilized.

•Wood chips in the garden and flammable shrubbery are some of the first things to ignite in an urban interface wildfire situation. Fire resistant external building materials such as wood-free landscaping are being used. In fact, Fort McMurray is banning flammable exterior building finishes such as vinyl siding and asphalt shingles.

•After decades of low water levels in the Great Lakes Basin many officials and property owners had found less and less relevance for flood maps. In 2017, we saw a historic rise in water levels and a resulting resurrection of many of these maps and related response plans.

How can Canadian businesses be prepared?

If there is one main theme that we are witnessing, it is the increasing importance of planning. In fact, we are also seeing that business continuity and disaster recovery plans are increasingly becoming mandatory. Companies must demonstrate that they have those plans in place and that they’re being updated and tested regularly.
 
Planning, identifying risks, building in your partners and an annual review is required to ensure the next level of risk management and mitigation. Our customers who undertake planning in a systematic way, and build disaster service requirements into their planning always fare better.  

Dave Demos is the CEO of FirstOnSite (www.firstonsite.ca).

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