Calgary, Like U.S. Coastal Cities, Must Become ‘Smarter Than the Storm,’ Flood Conference Hears

By Tamara Gignac, Calgary Herald

City planners should learn from the Alberta floods, hurricane Katrina and other disasters to better prepare for extreme weather events, according to experts speaking at a University of Calgary flood conference.

Thomas Dallessio has spent the past year advising the New Jersey state government on recovery solutions in the wake of hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that deluged transit systems, electrical infrastructure and washed out homes and businesses in the coastal region last Oct. 29.

Calgary — much like U.S. coastal cities — needs to become “smarter than the storm” by exploring a range of solutions, said Dallessio, who serves as project manager of the Center for Resilient Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

One option is to build “amphibious” houses that rise and fall with the level of groundwater. “We need to pay attention to the science and bring researchers together with emergency management personnel, fire chiefs and police to reach a common conclusion and have the courage to make the changes that are necessary,” he said.

Friday’s all-day symposium was organized by the U of C’s faculty of environmental design and the Institute for Public Health. It featured keynote speakers with expertise in architecture, psychology and disaster recovery.

Flooding can actually benefit cities if appropriate safeguards are taken, noted urban planner Donald Watson, author of the book Design for Flooding: Resilience to Climate Change.

Flood-prone communities are exploring a variety of mitigation strategies, including the use of porous asphalt that can store rain water, he said.

Some countries, like Japan, are also putting in place so-called “super levees” to create flood basins where water can be detained.

Flood mitigation is “not just the dream of the future but the action plan of today,” Watson told attendees.

Dr. Michael Trew, the province’s recently appointed chief mental health officer, spoke about Alberta’s efforts to help displaced flood victims cope with the disaster.

It’s one thing to rebuild bridges and roads, but the emotional well-being of those under stress from the worst flooding in provincial history is of equal importance, Trew said.

“There are people who need a little bit of help and others who don’t know how to respond anymore. Some turn to dangerous habits; others struggle to deal with loss,” he said.

Scientists are also investigating the long-term toll natural disasters have on human health.

Dr. David Plante, a developmental psychologist at McGill University, discussed his research into the impact of maternal stress on fetuses during the Quebec ice storm.

He found that pregnant women who suffered higher levels of stress gave birth to children more inclined to obesity and an increased risk of diabetes — an “unexpected” consequence to the 1998 winter disaster that caused 27 deaths and left three million people without electricity for days.

Originally published in the Calgary Herald