Worst-case Ontario: How to prepare for climate-change disasters

Have you flood-proofed your house? Put together a kit for your car? Experts warn that extreme-weather events in this province will only get worse — and that Ontarians need to get ready
By Glynis Ratcliffe - Published on Sep 20, 2019
The Constance Bay area, northwest of Ottawa, experienced severe flooding in spring 2019. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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It’s hard to think of a single area in Ontario that hasn’t faced an extreme-weather event in the past five years. In 2019 alone, Muskoka suffered its second 100-year flood in six years, and record-breaking levels on Lake Ontario caused significant flooding. Canada has been warming at twice the rate of the global average, and experts warn that Ontario will see more frequent flooding, forest fires, and soaring temperatures — and that people must better prepare themselves for climate-change-related disasters.

Blair Feltmate, head of the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre for Climate Change, believes that we’ve spent too much time discussing greenhouse-gas mitigation and not enough time considering what climate change will bring. “How do we adapt to the extreme-weather risk that’s on the ground today — and, more importantly, the extreme-weather risk that’s coming for sure in the future that will be more challenging than that which we’re currently experiencing?” he asks. “We know for sure that climate change is irreversible, period. It’s here to stay.”

So how can we adjust our sense of the worst-case scenario to account for the effects of climate change? Chris Gilmour, founder of the Huntsville-based Changing World Project, agrees that it starts with asking the right questions. “I see very few people actually having that conversation about what it actually looks like to change the way that we live,” he says, “or even the way that we raise our children so that they’re more adaptable, and they’re more resilient, and they have the skill sets to adapt and thrive in an unstable climate.”

Gilmour, who has a background in emergency and disaster management, started Changing World in 2017 to help people feel empowered to adapt to the new climate reality. The project offers a variety of workshops, web courses, and events: at the “Fire & Water — Essential Human Skills for Survival” workshop, for example, participants learn how to start fires and purify water. “It’s about looking at nature for models, actually getting to know and better understand ecology,” he says.

The extreme-weather event most likely to cause costly damage in Ontario, Feltmate says, is flooding — residential flooding, in particular. The Intact Centre provides information about how to modify a few key spots in your house in order to mitigate flood risk. And it’s launched an app designed to take you through a basic assessment of your home to find out how well-protected it is from flooding.

The centre is also discussing how it could tailor flood-mitigation materials and initiatives to homes in First Nations reserves in northern Ontario. “In my opinion,” he says, “this is an area that merits substantial attention rapidly.”

As Feltmate notes, though, it can be difficult to motivate people to act — partly because they’re worried about having to shoulder extra costs. “A lot of people are under the false impression that to prepare for climate change, it’s always expensive,” he says, noting that there are a variety of subsidy programs, such as the Windsor Basement Flooding Protection Subsidy Program, that Canadians are either not aware of or not taking advantage of. “Those programs have been in place for about seven to eight years, on average, and the uptake relative to eligible homeowners is almost always consistently in the range of about 6 to 8 per cent,” he says. “In other words, they don’t work.”

Gilmour agrees that people can be slow to change their lifestyles and often find the prospect of educating themselves overwhelming. That’s why a number of his workshops and seminars are available online, allowing for easy access. He also sees a benefit in focusing people’s attention on small and achievable goals. "One of my passions is taking the overwhelming and simplifying it,” he says. “You're thinking too much about the big thing. Here's some really small, easy things you can do today with no money, with very limited time that actually bring you leaps and bounds forward in your preparedness.” In a checklist available online, he offers a “before, during and after review of steps you can take during a flood emergency situation,” providing tips you can put into action when a flood is possible, is likely or occurring, or has occurred. You’ll also find checklists for items it can be useful to keep in your car and home — bug spray, for example (“there can be an increased risk of vector-borne diseases after a flood”), and duct tape (“many uses”).

He stresses, though, that disasters also provide us with an opportunity to rebuild in a way that’s more sustainable and resilient. “When a big disaster happens or a climatic event happens and pulls down parts of our systems,” he says, “our natural instinct is actually to build it back the exact same way as quick as possible because we’re in this state of shock, and we want normalcy.”

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