Be Ready for an Emergency

Jul 15, 2009

There are people in Ontario who can’t sleep when it rains heavily at night because they have experienced a flooded basement too often. Homeowners in British Columbia are reminded of the fear and reality of ­losing their home and possessions each time they see televised images of uncontrolled wildfires in the U.S. and Australia. Many in the elderly and infirm population are nervous that summer heat waves may strain the electrical power system, threatening another disruptive blackout. Each spring, homeowners and farmers in southern ­Manitoba and North Dakota watch for signs of yet another flooding of the Red River. Inuit in Canada’s North already feel the effects of climate change on their ­ability to live and provide food in their tradition.

June 2002 - West Glenwood, Colorado.

These and other impending emergencies may be on the minds of those who have experienced a natural catastrophe. But do the rest understand the importance of being ready for natural and man-made disasters? Do we realize how personally affected we may very well be by an emergency? Are we actually prepared?

The answers to these and other questions were sought by a recent landmark national survey commissioned by Allstate ­Insurance Company of Canada. The results were released to coincide with Emergency Preparedness Week, as Allstate Canada became the first insurance company to participate actively in this annual event aimed at educating Canadians on personal emergency preparedness.

The survey reveals that Canadians understand the importance of being ready for natural and man-made disasters and recognize that they may be personally affected by them. But it also found that we are not taking the steps necessary to prepare for such potential emergencies. This discrepancy between Canadians’ perceptions and what they are actually doing is alarming. When considered in concert with growing disaster losses and our changing climate, it is cause for a renewed effort to promote a culture of preparedness.

Growing Threat of Disaster
Disaster losses caused by nature’s extreme events are increasing around the world. These events range from flood to drought, hurricane and tornado, heavy snow and ice accumulation, hail, wildfire, earthquake, and other hazards. Each presents the risk of becoming a disaster and an emergency ­situation if we fail to prevent and prepare. Understanding natural hazards and how our risk is changing over time is critical to recognizing that we must prepare ourselves and to knowing how best to do so.

Global economic losses from natural disasters have doubled every five to seven years since the 1960s. According to Swiss Re, 2008 was the third-most costly year for natural catastrophe losses in history, with worldwide insured losses of more than U$52 billion, economic losses of U$269 billion and loss of life totaling 240,500.

The upward trend of disaster losses is expected to increase as climate change causes weather to become more severe and variable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 report, expects climate change impacts in Canada to affect a number of weather factors, including an increase in the number of hot days, greater wind and storm intensity, and more extreme precipitation events.

An increased number of hot days during summer will demand more from our electrical infrastructure system as air conditioners are overworked to keep buildings cool. This strain on the system significantly increases the possibility of a widespread power loss. Sustained higher temperatures also create ideal conditions for forest fire ignition and spread, thus increasing the threat of wildfire. Munich Re reports that the nine warmest years on record occurred between 1995 and 2005.

Haitian Village is devastated by flooding from a tropical storm.

Windstorm activity is expected to ­increase as a result of climate change. Hurricanes, tornados and wind gusts will pose a greater threat to homes, buildings and public infrastructure. In the U.S., seven of the 10 most expensive hurricanes in ­history occurred between August 2004 and October 2005.

An increase in the frequency and severity of heavy rainfall events in the future can be expected to exacerbate the flood problem in Canada, causing a rise in both urban flash flooding and riverine flooding. Water damage from flooding is already the greatest cause of damage to homes in Canada. Lehner and other climate experts in the journal Climatic Change have estimated that what we now regard as a 1 in 100 year event may actually be closer to a 1 in 50 year event, and may occur as often as once every 10 to 15 years by 2070.

Recent flood events in Canada demonstrate the effects of increasingly heavy downpours. The August 2005 storm that struck the Greater Toronto Area caused extensive flooding that resulted in over $500 million in insurance claims and stands as the most costly storm event in Ontario’s history. Also in 2005, southern Alberta ­suffered flooding that totaled $306 million in insured damages. A July 2004 storm in Edmonton resulted in $143 million in ­insurance claims for sewer backup alone. That same month, a flood in Peterborough resulted in over $100 million in damages.

Survey findings
With an appreciation of the threat posed by these hazards and the knowledge that disaster risk is changing, Allstate Canada commissioned this national survey in order to understand the level of preparedness of Canadians. Conducted by Leger Marketing, the survey was timed to coincide with this year’s Emergency Preparedness Week.

The survey revealed a number of ­important findings of which members of the public, and those in the disaster ­management community, should be aware. The results indicate that, while many are aware of the importance of being ready for emergencies, most people are unprepared for them.

The survey found that 86% of Canadians feel it is important to be prepared for potential emergencies. More than half (54%) of respondents believe they will personally experience an emergency within the next ten years. Despite the recognition that disasters are possible, few Canadians feel they are very prepared for an emergency, with 42% saying they are not prepared. Only 9% of respondents claimed to be very prepared for an emergency.

The large gap between those who ­believe it is important to be prepared for emergencies and those who are actually prepared must be addressed. Since the community recognizes the importance of preparing for emergencies, education is necessary to help individual members of the public to prevent and prepare for disasters.

While Canadians may recognize the importance of being prepared for a potential emergency, a large number realize they have not done enough to get ready. A number of actions can be taken to prepare for emergencies, as outlined briefly here. Detailed information is available at the sources provided below. In a changing climate with a growing threat of weather extremes, now is the time to promote a culture of preparedness.  

Greg Oulahen works for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (

The survey discussed in this article, commissioned by Allstate Canada, was conducted by Leger Marketing between March 25 and March 29, 2009. It canvassed 1680 Canadian adults, aged 18 years and older, on their opinions of emergency preparedness and the steps they have taken to prepare for a potential emergency. The survey is considered accurate to a margin of error of 2.3%, 19 times out of 20. For more information visit:
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