COVID-19 and flooding: Will the pandemic complicate efforts to manage natural disasters?

Emergency personnel sandbagging Photo by Animaflora PicsStock/Shutterstock

COVID-19 and flooding: the pandemic is here and flooding may be on the horizon. How will we manage two crises at once?

Given how many of us emerged recently in the few days of spring-like weather, it’s not likely we’ve forgotten what time of year it is. But with the vast majority of us self-isolating and focussed on increasingly dire news reports about the rising numbers of people infected with COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that spring, along with warmth and sunshine, can occasionally usher in floods, tornadoes, and drought leading to wildfires.

And with so much of our country’s resources directed at battling a pandemic, what happens if disaster strikes? What happens when COVID-19 and flooding happen at the same time?

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It’s a question under consideration by the Canadian Armed Forces, which is currently warning of the potential for spring floods. As well, “internal measures are being taken to mitigate the risk to our personnel and preserve our operational capabilities and readiness for current and future deployed operations,” says Jessica Lamirande, a media relations spokesperson with the Department of National Defence.

Though it seems like a million years ago, it was just last spring that considerable parts of Canada, particularly Ontario and Quebec, were dealing with historically high water levels. Quebec created shelters to house those displaced by the floods, a response that would be almost impossible under the current guidelines of social (physical) distancing. Both provinces are already operating under a state of emergency with regards to COVID-19, which might also allow them to free up resources quickly in the event of flooding.

The International Lake Ontario–St. Lawrence River Board is a subsidiary of the IJC that manages the outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam, on the St. Lawrence, between Cornwall, Ont., and Massena, N.Y. The board met on March 11 and agreed to amend its Plan 2014 to “allow for additional increases to the rate of water removed from Lake Ontario through the spring.”

Like last year’s high water events, increased precipitation in weeks to come could create problems, and the board wants to respond proactively. Already, water level data from March 11 shows higher-than-average water flowing from the Niagara River into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence, prompting officials to encourage residents and communities to be vigilant and to prepare for high water.

In the case of flooding, it’s incumbent on provincial governments to submit a Request for Assistance, which is sent to and approved by the Minister of Public Safety Canada. From that request, explains Lamirande, the Canadian Armed Forces will determine how many people to send and what supplies or materials to send with them.

To date, there is no such request and, with a lot of luck, there won’t be.

But, while professionals do their jobs, cottagers can examine their insurance policies and perhaps speak with insurance providers. Visit the Government of Canada’s “Flood Ready” web page and take necessary steps. And let’s hope that any flood mitigation strategies that cottagers put into place after last year’s high-water events will minimize damage. But be prepared for some tough decision-making that may have to happen: it will be hard to follow physical distancing guidelines when you’re in a volunteer emergency sandbagging line.

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