Maybe, just maybe, 2018 will be the year Canada begins to take resilience seriously.
This summer passed and we watched while Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, Texas, then roughly a week later we watched again while Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean islands, causing immense damage in Puerto Rico.
Of course, being human we think things like that couldn’t happen here. And while it’s true that hurricanes hitting Canada are extremely rare, the aberrant weather that has become the new normal is not going to get any better. Be it windstorms or flooding, our cities are not prepared for catastrophic weather events.
Shortly after Harvey and Maria finished their rampages, the University of Western Ontario, in London, put out a news release talking about a resilience research lab it has and the team of researchers who are working on how wind affects structures. They’re trying to understand at what point in a heavy windstorm structures become unstable and the best ways to make them wind-resilient.
Engineering professor Greg Kopp heads the research effort.
He recalls going into the frenzy of Hurricane Dennis in 2005. After tearing through Haiti and Cuba, Dennis was approaching Florida’s Gulf Coast and an evacuation order was in place. Despite that Kopp went in to place an array of sensors along a stretch of beach.
“It’s interesting, being in a storm after all the emergency personnel have left,” he says. “It’s raining so hard that it stings like needles on exposed skin.”
When the storm had passed and the team returned to pick up their gear, “a woman was standing there, suddenly unemployed,” he recalls. “Her home was fine but the restaurant she worked at had been just blown away. It made a profound impact on me, and continues to do so, more than a decade later.”
Research has shown there are simple, cheap ways for making a structure better able to withstand hurricane-force winds.
“The lowest-hanging fruit,” says Kopp, “is how we fasten the whole roof onto the walls.”
For example, researchers found attaching the roof of a building to its walls with hurricane straps during the construction process can cost as little as $200 and make a building resistant to 40 per cent more wind pressure. Adding more nails and making sure they’re just a centimetre longer than required doubles the strength of the roof sheathing for an additional cost of just $10.
Such simple, low-cost precautions can make the difference between storm devastation and storm resilience, he says.
Engineering Professor Slobodan Simonovic is adamant about the need for improved flood resilience. He is the director of engineering studies with the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, also at Western. He argues traditional approaches to flood control are insufficient.
Planning for a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood ignores the reality that no single-system approach works, he says.
When Harvey walloped Houston last summer the city was deluged by 1.2 metres of rainfall in a very short time. The city, which is relatively flat, was drenched.
Taking a traditional approach, Simonovic says, you plan for an event like a 100-year flood and decide if it’s worth building or not building.
“But that number simply doesn’t tell you what will happen to the water treatment plant. It won’t tell you anything about what will happen to your home or your factory,” he says.
Instead, planners should look at many variables to determine how each design would withstand individual events. If wastewater treatment plants and their mechanical and electrical systems are raised above floodplain, for example, they may become more resilient. Similar assessments need to take place when designing, building, repairing and protecting all structures and infrastructure, he says.
A number of municipalities, including Toronto, are using that model, but its use is not widespread.
But a rating system for resilience has been developed in the United States. I’ll have more on that next week.
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.