LETHBRIDGE - "A disaster waiting to happen."
Cindy Ermus says it's a recurring theme in media coverage of a catastrophe like Hurricane Harvey. It's also been a theme throughout history. But she says all cities can learn from the costly lessons.
“By the time you get around to putting a regulation in place, or putting it out for a vote, people forget, people have already forgotten, and they don't expect disaster to happen again.”
"It comes as a result of a disaster," the University of Lethbridge assistant professor said in an interview. "The disaster strikes first, rather than put certain preventative measures in place, the disaster strikes first and then cities respond."
Ermus was growing up in Miami when it was hit by Hurricane Andrew 25 years ago, an experience she describes as "the scariest night of my life" but one that has contributed to an academic interest in disasters.
She explained it was after Andrew that Miami made changes to building codes and enforcement. But there's a loss of what she calls "social memory."
"When disaster strikes people mobilize initially," Ermus explained. "And then by the time you get around to putting a regulation in place, or putting it out for a vote, people forget, people have already forgotten, and they don't expect disaster to happen again. There's a lack of fear and things don't get done."
While Ermus' background of study is on historical disasters, she is in the process of editing a book on environmental disaster in the U.S. Gulf Coast region -- the area now being slammed by Harvey. The disaster in Houston, she said, has been made worse by problems with infrastructure in a city that has grown without zoning laws.
"Why were the flood plains paved over?" Ermus wondered. "As the city grew and grew, expanding in every direction, more concrete has been laid down. And what does this do? The flood plain absorbs rain water, a natural way to prevent floods, and when you pave it over you get storm water runoff, where the water has nowhere to go, so it goes up during events like this and you get your flooding."
Ermus feels that's played an even larger role in Harvey's impact than on climate change. But she does argue it's resulted in a stronger, more intense storm, that has deluged the region with rainfall measured in feet.
She also said these disasters have a disproportionate impact on communities of lower socioeconomic status, and minority and immigrant populations.
And western Canadian cities may not be vulnerable to hurricanes, but given devastating floods in Calgary, High River, and elsewhere, Ermus said just because there hasn't been a major storm in a long time doesn't mean it will never happen.
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