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How to beat Canada’s emerging weather threat to the punch

Canada is warming twice as fast as the global average. If that doesn’t shock you, consider what’s happened in just the last several weeks: a wildfire wiped out the entire town of Lytton, BC and five tornadoes struck southern Ontario in a matter of hours, one of them destroying 150 homes in Barrie with winds of 210 km/h.

Lytton also had the unfortunate distinction of recording the country’s highest temperature on record – 49.6C (121.3F) – and 719 people died of heat-related causes during the BC heat wave. Record-setting heat in western Canada and the US Pacific Northwest has stumped climate scientists, whose analysis concluded that the heat wave was “virtually impossible without human-caused climate change” with temperatures “so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures.”

While these alarming events can figuratively suck the oxygen out of the room, we shouldn’t ignore a different kind of climate impact, one that’s lurking off the coast on the other side of the country. Warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures contribute to ideal conditions for hurricanes.

As terrifying as hurricane winds might be, it’s the extended rainfall and flooding that causes the greatest peril. Much of our nation’s infrastructure is ill equipped to handle flash flooding – whether it’s from a hurricane or tornado or severe storm – because there is often insufficient funding to rebuild and because we don’t build smart in the first place.

In response, insurers, nonprofits and governments are joining forces to help our communities improve resilience a number of ways:

  • Mitigation: More than 120 insurers across Canada have pledged to help their customers make improvements after an insured loss that will reduce the chance of damage in the next storm – like installing a backwater valve to prevent damage from a sewer backup or adding an auxiliary power source to a sump pump. According to the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), the incremental cost of such improvements is an extra 1-2 percent, which can prevent future losses six times greater or more than the cost.
  • Insurance: Underpinning this crisis is a lack of awareness about flood insurance. While it is offered as part of a standard homeowners policy outside flood zones, the actual coverage varies significantly. If people don’t understand what’s excluded from their policy as well as coverage limits, they could be in for an unwelcome surprise if their claim is denied. The time to find out what exactly is covered is before an event, not after.
  • Building: ICLR is conducting damage assessments in the wake of severe weather events across the country in an effort to help rewrite building codes and ensure builders comply with those codes. Inspectors who toured the devastation in Barrie took note of homes pulled away from their foundations and upper stories that were completely severed.

The stakes are indeed high. Over the last ten years more than 750,000 homes in Canada were damaged by extreme weather and insurance companies paid more than $12 billion to policyholders to repair severe weather damage to their homes. That’s a big price tag that can result in higher premiums for everyone, whether you live in a flood-prone area or not.

Canada’s best preparation is a two-fold approach: physical and financial prevention and mitigation. Insurance sits at the intersection of these factors. When a homeowner builds or rebuilds in excess of what is required in the construction code, they can get favorable  rates on their insurance policy. In addition, insurers can offer incentives such as discounts for making improvements. By upgrading homes or considering whether to rebuild in the same location following a disaster, we can make Canada more “weatherproof.”

Climate change is here. Weather is getting more volatile and ignoring or not planning for it isn't going to make it go away. Now is the time to marshal the tools available, from insurance to building codes, to better prepare Canadian citizens and business for the effects of extreme weather events.