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Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Preparing for the worst

A London research institute's study of natural disasters is aimed at saving lives and money.

By HANK DANISZEWSKI, Free Press Education Reporter

 It's a think tank that deals in disaster.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at the University of Western Ontario is a platform for researchers who think about the unthinkable -- floods, earthquakes,tornadoes -- then take the old Boy Scout motto "Be prepared" to a global level.

For the institute's two full-time researchers, Gordon McBean and Slobodan Simonovic, that means preparing cities and nations for the worst case scenarios of nature and forming plans to limit death and damage.

That can mean designing better dams, floodways and buildings to withstand wind and earthquakes and improving weather forecasts and other methods to warn of impending disaster.

Simonovic said the research brings together a variety of disciplines including engineers, meteorologists, geologists, economists and political scientists.

"A big disaster hits so many areas, we can't just think within our own boxes," Simonovic said.

The institute may have a noble purpose, but its work is also driven by the bottom line. A major backer of the institute are Canadian insurance companies worried about an escalation in claims for natural disasters.

The 1990's saw a sharp rise in the number of natural disasters occurring around the world including Hurricane Andrew in Florida, the Kobe earthquake in Japan and numerous floods and droughts in Europe and Asia. Loss payments by governments and insurers around the world are doubling every five to 10 years.

"Hurricane Andrew alone came within a whisker of bankrupting the American insurance industry," said McBean, a former assistant deputy minister in Environment Canada's weather service.

Canada had its share of catastrophe in the last decade with floods in the Saguenay region in 1996 and the Red River in 1997. That was followed by the ice storm in Ontario and Quebec which killed 16 people and caused $5 billion in damages, making it the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

For an industry that bets against bad news, it was a wakeup call.

"The insurers calculated a major Vancouver earthquake would cost $30 billion. They realized they didn't have $30 billion lying around," said McBean.

The institute was founded in 1998 as the brainchild of UWO engineering professor emeritus Alan Davenport and Paul Kovacs, a UWO economics graduate and chief economist with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The institute is a partnership between the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the provincial government's Challenge fund and UWO which each contribute about $500,000 annually.

The office at Western is based in a house on Western Road and co-ordinates research. Another office in Toronto works with the insurance industry and does community relations. A board of directors, including Davenport and insurance executives, sets broad directions of research aimed at reducing losses.

"The focus is preventing hazards from happening, not cleaning up afterwards," said Simonovic.

Simonovic said one reason the dollar loss for natural disaster is climbing is there is more to destroy. Development is slowly seeping into remote areas subject to extreme weather.

"These extreme conditions have always been around but they become disasters when you put something in a flood plain," he said.

He said business is also more vulnerable because of new systems such as "just-in-time" delivery. It means a winter snow storm can shut down a factory for days because there aren't enough parts to maintain production.

The institute does not deal with man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks or industrial accidents. But Simonovic said much of the research into areas such as building design and mass evacuation has application for different types of disasters.

McBean said researchers are also working on the assumption the number of weather-related disasters will escalate, mainly due to global warming. Although there is still hot debate in the scientific community about climate change, a United Nations study has accepted it as fact and warns it could spawn an unprecedented string of climactic disasters.

McBean said global warning will cause more intense storms simply because warm systems pack more energy. It can also have more serious long-term impacts such as melting of the polar ice caps causing an increase in sea levels. One doomsday scenario has the west Antarctic ice shelf toppling into the ocean causing an almost immediate six metre ocean rise.

"To put that in perspective, a one metre ocean rise would wipe out large portions of Bangladesh or cities like Cairo."

McBean said much of the attention on global warming has focused on the Kyoto Accord to limit greenhouse gases. But he said even if Kyoto went into effect immediately, global warming is already underway requiring nations to adapt.

"Kyoto is not a magic bullet. It won't do much, but if we don't do it we are not even taking a little step."

Some of the research focuses on human problems such as prodding politicians into long-term thinking. Simonovic said politicians, always reluctant to look beyond the next election, have to be persuaded about long-term measures to prevent disasters, such as stronger building codes or bans on building in flood zones.

When then-Manitoba premier Duff Roblin decided to build a floodway around Winnipeg in 1962 at a cost of $63 million, it was mocked as "Duff's Ditch." In 1997, Simonovic said, the floodway saved Winnipeg $6 billion to $9 billion in damages.

Some solutions are much cheaper and simpler. Davenport, founder of Western's Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel, has done research showing deaths from storms in poor tropical countries can be reduced just by tying down the roofs of homes with a rope.

Simonovic said if the costs of disaster planning are too great or the risk too remote, it can be a tough sell.

"The question is: 'What is the right mix of things that make us less vulnerable to disaster?' "

Disaster planners also have to strike a balance in giving appropriate warning to the public about storms or tornados without causing panic or complacency.

"There's a number of times you cry wolf and it doesn't happen, but if you miss a tornado you're in trouble." said McBean.

McBean said Environment Canada took heat from the public and politicians a few years ago when they did not issue tornado warnings at the same time as Michigan officials.

"We were right because the tornado never crossed into Canada. But some said the American forecasters were protecting them better than the Canadians."

Simonovic said huge disasters are also difficult to impress upon the public. He said some Manitobans ignored the Red River flood warnings because they had never experienced such a huge flood in their lives.

"Our perceptions are based on past experience. But it's hard to communicate extreme conditions no one has ever experienced."

The institute tries to get its messages across in a variety of ways including a series of annual workshops which draw academics, politicians and health professionals. In partnership with the Red Cross the institute recently co-sponsored televisions spots giving advice to home owners on emergency preparations.

McBean said even disaster can have it's bright side.

He said Hurricane Hazel in 1954 persuaded Ontario politicians to keep development out of floods zones and create recreational areas instead. "If it hadn't been for Hazel, the Don Valley in Toronto might be full of high rises instead of parks."


Ice storm (1998) $5 billion 16 deaths

Drought (1979/80) $2.5 billion

Drought (1988) $1.8 billion

Drought (1984) $1 billion

Sagueny flood (1996) $1 billion 10 deaths

Drought (1961) $700 million

Manitoba flood (1997) $400 million 4 deaths

Calgary hailstorm (1991) $360 million

B.C. blizzard (1996) $200 million

Winnipeg flood (1993) $160 million

Edmonton tornado (1987) $150 million 12 deaths

Calgary hailstorm (1996) $140 million

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