Canadian Underwriter

Guess who’s in the flood prevention business now

May 30, 2019   by David Gambrill

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We’ve seen forensic engineering firms apply remediation methods to commercial and residential properties that were affected by flood damage. But now, as flooding has become more severe, they are in the vanguard of building comprehensive and tailored flood prevention and mitigation strategies for Canadians.

We’ve all seen images of Canadians using sandbags at the last minute to protect against potential flooding a couple of days in advance of storm forecasts. But residents and business owners now have access to the multi-disciplinary capabilities of experts that can identify specific risks and adopt comprehensive plans around them.

“What we’ve been asking of our clients is to start planning for [potential flood events] in more detail, so our team of experts can proactively deliver a tailored solution that fits their risk exposure,” says Jeff Reitsma, vice president and practice lead of remediation at 30 Forensic Engineering. “We encourage them to do a little bit of investment in advance, whether the solution is high-tech or low-tech, so if [the rain] is coming down, you’re not elbowing people out of the way at the Home Depot looking for sacks of sand. There are better, more sophisticated engineering solutions, but they take time and planning.”

Options are proliferating for policyholders to have flood risk assessments conducted on their homes or businesses. The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, for example, offers several resources to help residents reduce their risk of experiencing a basement flood. And brokers and property managers are becoming more proactive in encouraging their clients to have assessments done. However, often these assessments are limited in scope, focusing on best practices for water prevention at the level of the individual home or business.

Where forensic engineering firms have something different to offer is the broader scope of analysis of flood risks, based on claims losses they have participated in rebuilding. For example, forensic engineering firms can point out neighbourhoods at risk instead of just individual homes or businesses. In addition, they can offer cross-disciplinary expertise and a broader approach that may take into account such things as infrastructure issues.

“We have been focusing on strategic-level details such as, ‘What’s the topography of your area? How does the sloping look?’” Reitsma told Canadian Underwriter Wednesday. “We have tools that can look remotely at your residence, map the property, and tell us, for example, something like: ‘You have a low point over here, and 400 metres over here there is a creek, and that could connect if the water goes this way or that way.’”

Secondly, a forensic engineering firm can look at the building envelope to detect potential vulnerabilities. In a home, it would consider where the windows and doors are located. In commercial facilities, classic exposures would include a loading bay or a parking garage. And sometimes a property may be exposed depending upon its orientation to municipal infrastructure such as hydro utilities, for example.

The site modelling capabilities of a forensic engineering firm are particularly advantageous in areas where Canada’s flood maps are either non-existent or woefully out of date. CBC has reported that the federal government will begin uploading nearly 2,000 updated, user-friendly flood plain maps next year. It’s expected that many people will be aware for the first time that their property is at worse risk of flooding than they previously thought.

Forensic engineering firms can help clients to scale their response to the level of their risk. Or to quote the Kenny Rogers country tune, they can help clients to “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.”

“You can tailor it [your response] to the level of risk that you have,” says Reitsma. “In New York, we’re talking about the kind of storm you can protect against. If you have a storm of the century, which now happens every couple of years, maybe you can protect against five feet of water, say. You would size barriers or hatches to deal with that level of inundation of water around your property.”

But maybe the client’s risk exposure is worse than that.

“It may be that in some cases you can’t protect in the way that you would like to,” said Reitsma. “We’ve had conversations with some property managers in the United States, certainly in the coastal areas, where if you get a Category 2 hurricane, you’re under 15 feet of water, not five.

“At that point, then you are talking about a very different thing. Instead of trying to stop the water, we are talking about, ‘How do we facilitate drying? How do we speed the recovery? How do we minimize costs of the flooding that will happen? Now it’s mitigating the impact of the flood instead of preventing the flood.”