Are we ready for the next natural disaster?

June 2017

Capital Ward got off lightly during a spring that had all the ingredients for a major flood. By the time the heavy rains of late April and early May hit the region, the “spring freshet”, or melting of accumulated winter snow and ice, had already passed in the Rideau River catchment area. While the waters of the Rideau lapped at many doorsteps, it caused no major damage to city infrastructure or property.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for many communities along the Ottawa River. Slow-moving weather systems brought sustained, heavy rain just when the river’s northern watershed was reaching the peak of its spring freshet. We all know what followed.

With the benefit of hindsight, there is much we can learn from this and other past floods.

First, never say, “It can’t happen here.” Major floods can happen anywhere — if not from the annual freshet, then from flash floods following intense rain. And in a changing climate where each degree of warming carries seven percent more humidity, we can expect more frequent, extreme local rainfalls, and a higher volume of water brought to specific areas. We are all exposed to a greater flood risk than has historically been the case.

While residents of the Glebe are not likely to be at significant risk from river flooding, there are low-lying areas and pockets of the community that have been affected in the past — and will be affected again — by isolated flash flooding, Many of us also have friends and loved ones in more flood-prone areas.

Second, don’t assume you will have plenty of warning. With any weather-related crisis, whether flooding or an ice storm, the interval between “everything is fine” and “uh-oh, we have a problem” may be much less than you expect. It’s a good idea to have an emergency plan for removing valuables from your home, shutting off electricity, finding accommodation for family and pets, and acquiring food, water and other necessary supplies.

Third, do your part — and insist that all governments do their part — to protect land that serves an important function by absorbing and holding flood water. We must reverse the trend towards widespread paving and hard landscaping that make urban and suburban areas less permeable and thus less able to absorb water. Keep your yard as “soft” and permeable as possible by protecting existing trees and by favouring plants over paving stones.

We must also insist that municipalities and conservation authorities update their publicly-available flood maps to reflect climate patterns and changes to land use. Without these, citizens cannot make informed decisions about if and where to purchase a home, cities cannot properly assess the risks of approving construction in flood-prone areas, and we all pay the price as residents and taxpayers. The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority and the City of Ottawa are updating our maps in the knowledge that much has changed over time, particularly in light of newer housing developments and higher anticipated risks associated with climate change.

As a society, we need to accept that climate change will increase the likelihood of flooding. That’s why the insurance industry has been so outspoken about acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While others were/are still in denial, insurers see the spike in claims related to flooding and other “natural” disasters in Canada and globally. In response, they need to raise premiums for some types of coverage, or simply cancel or exclude certain types of coverage where the risks and costs can no longer be adequately covered.

Were the floods of 2017 the result of climate change? We can’t draw a direct causal relationship to one specific incident. But more extreme weather events are happening around the world. It’s up to us, citizens and government alike, to play our part in flood prevention, adaptation and response.

Capital Ward Open House
Wednesday, June 21, 7 – 9 p.m.
Immaculata High School, 140 Main St.

With a number of significant infrastructure projects starting in 2017, I am organizing an open house for residents who wish to view details of final plans and ask questions about the designs, anticipated construction timing and impacts.

The marquee project for many will be the long-anticipated Rideau Canal footbridge connecting the Glebe with Old Ottawa East and South. Another is the Western Rideau River Pathway, to connect existing paths and trails from Billings Bridge to the Lees transit station. Finally, there’s the series of changes to bus routes and service related to the opening of light rail service.

But there’s no need to confine questions to these projects. I will be available at this meeting to take questions, hear concerns and discuss whatever issue you wish to bring up, one on one. Or, just call or email my office. I do my best to respond to all inquiries and concerns throughout the year.