January 1, 2000 by Paul Kovacs, executive director of the Institute for Catastrophi
With the 1999 hurricane season recently closing with the last minute arrival of Hurricane Lenny causing considerably and unexpected damage in the Caribbean, the timing of the recently jointly held Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) and Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) Hurricane Conference was appropriately timed. Although Canada suffered minor losses through the season, with Hurricane Floyd having been the most significant event to touch our shores, all indications point to more severe and numerous hurricane-class storms in the year ahead. And Canada had better be prepared.
September is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season. This was certainly evident this year, with three major storms causing damage in Atlantic Canada during one busy week of that month. Overall, the 1999 hurricane season saw five class-four or higher tropical storms evolve in the Atlantic region, a record year. Although most of these storms had little impact on Canadian shores, September definitely provided enough activity to raise cause for our attention. This particular week in September, after the aftermath of the Hurricane Floyd system entered our waters, was also the week of the first hurricane conference jointly hosted by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) and the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).
The joint conference focused on Canada’s vulnerability to hurricanes. The opening session featured two of Canada’s leading experts in the field, Jim Abraham and George Parkes of Environment Canada. The speakers suggest that the major storms influencing Canadian Atlantic shores all begin near western Africa and gradually grow stronger as they move west toward the Caribbean. Smaller storms turn north early and remain at sea, having little impact on our lives. The largest storms, however, are driven north only when they have come so close to North America that they will cause damage. Hurricane Andrew, still fresh in our minds, confirmed that the damage inflicted can be great indeed — that is, if we are not prepared.
Influence of neighboring systems
The majority of tropical storms generally lose strength passing colder waters in the north. It is common for the US tracking service to ignore these events before they come near New England and Canada. These storms, however, continue to carry a great deal of energy and moisture, and sometimes they interact with other systems and form a new intense storm.
Several of the most damaging storms reintensified and struck in the northern parts of North America. The storms also change in structure as they approach Canada, generally moving faster and covering a larger area with rainfall and wind gusts. Water damage often accounts for the majority of the hurricane losses in Canada.
The conference speakers identified periods when the frequency and severity of hurricane activity increases, including the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Also, there are periods of relatively less activity including most of the last twenty-five years. Bill Gray at Colorado State, and Chris Landsea of the US Hurricane Research Division, believe that we have started to swing back into a period of increased hurricane activity. El Nino is an additional factor that tends to reduce the risk of a major Atlantic hurricane, while the risk increases in La Nina years.
Alan Ruffman of Geomarine Associates, and Martha McCulloch of the Canadian Hurricane Center, lead a discussion of lessons learned from past hurricanes. They focussed on the Saxby Gale in 1869 and Hurricane Hazel in 1954.
The Saxby Gale killed more than 100 people. Extremely heavy rainfall was reported from Washington up through most of Atlantic Canada. Most importantly, it struck within hours of high tide — the worst situation for many parts of Atlantic Canada. The storm surge was about two metres above high tide. The subsequent flooding covered an extensive area.
A system of dikes has since been built in the area. This has better prepared us for future storms. Ruffman believes, however, that many such dikes have not been carefully thought through in design. He notes that many have been constructed to withstand waters up to the high tide level and perhaps 10 centimeters more. A major storm surge at high tide would cause those dikes to overflow, and it would take a long time for the water to drain. Also, recent analysis of where floodwaters may strike show that some key emergency response facilities should be better positioned.
Of course, Hurricane Hazel is the best known Canadian hurricane. It struck the middle Atlantic states and then seemed to run out of energy as it moved through the mountains. Suddenly, however, the storm reformed four hours later as it combined with a major weather system moving east through the Toronto area. The result was tremendous rainfall, flash flooding and extensive damage. The storm sewer system was overwhelmed, every ravine filled with water, the Holland Marsh flooded, resulting in homes being washed away. The final tally was more than 80 people dead with approximately $100 million in property damage.
McCullouch observes that many in Ontario have learned the dangerous lesson of building in areas vulnerable to flooding. Most homes and businesses have since been moved out of the flood plain, with the flood-prone areas having become designated parkland. However, he warns, there is some evidence that structures are moving back into these areas. The desire to live in attractive areas is causing more people to live in areas of risk.
Harold Belore of Cumming Cockburn pointed out at the conference that Hurricane Hazel was the trigger for the worst flooding on record in Ontario. His current research project with the ICLR is working to obtain input for flood management agencies in the Hamilton to Oshawa corridor to determine the impact that a similar storm would have today. On the one hand we see that developments since 1954 have taken into account the risk that another storm could strike as severe as Hazel. On the other hand, there has been rapid expansion in most communities, key infrastructure continues to age, and today many families have finished basements. The project will look at exposures by postal code so the information can help insurers better manage this risk.
Frank Mumford of Royal & SunAlliance used the conference to outline the IBC’s Claims Emergency Response (CERP) program. The objective of the program is to mobilize the industry’s resources to serve the public when they are most needed following extreme events like a hurricane. Each plan is designed to operate on a provincial level. The local IBC office and industry volunteers trained to run the program work with local and provincial authorities, media and others. We seek to ensure consistent response by the industry to consumer issues. The program includes recommended claims handling guidelines.
Covering all the bases
Charles O’Reilly of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography spoke about a program to use remote sensing to better manage the risk of storm surge damage. And, in support, Josko Bobanovic of Dalhousie, presented a model able to predict 48-hour forecasts about storm surges.
Other speakers, such as Michael Butler of the Ocean Institute of Canada, in highlighting efforts being made to improve coastal mapping, and Richard Harvey of King’s Country in presenting planning for dealing with extreme tidal events, focused on initiatives to combat ocean-related problems of storms.
On a regional basis, Barry Manuel of the Halifax Regional Municipality outlined the emergency planning being committed in the Halifax area, while Peter Nelson from the Town of Truro spoke about municipal planning in a community vulnerable to flooding. Appropriately, it was a blustery and wet day on which the ICLR/IBC’s 99 Hurricane Conference was held. However, subsequent industry feedback suggests that, despite the weather, the event effectively served the much needed purpose of bringing together national expertise in the battle of the Canadian hurricane ha