By Isabelle Thomas and Catherine P. Perras
Summary: This article presents a research project in which Experience Feedback from flood events is collected in order to identify lessons learned for flood risk management.
The importance of collecting Experience Feedback from flood events
In the spring of 2017, the province of Quebec incurred devastating floods, which affected 291 municipalities, flooded more than 5000 residences, and forced the evacuation of over 4000 people (Ministère de la Sécurité publique, 2018). Following this event, the government of Quebec adopted a decree (777-2017) to prevent destroyed or highly damaged residences in 0-20 year flood zones from being rebuilt in certain municipalities, but also allowed these municipalities to apply for collective and individual exemptions from this rule under exceptional circumstances (Éditeur officiel du Québec, 2017). In compliance with the provincial policy, these municipalities have also had to impose mitigation measures during the reconstruction of some residences to adapt these structures to future floods. As more communities become increasingly affected by flood events, it is essential to collect and analyze data from these events to identify lessons learned, improve flood risk management, and build more resilient communities.
However, since the implementation of the decree, there have been few structured feedback mechanisms that have appreciated the consequences that these policies have had on flood risk exposure and vulnerability, and how these current policies can be improved for future disasters. This is partly due to the fact that the government of Quebec does not have, to this day, a formal Experience Feedback methodology covering disaster risk management (DRM) processes (prevention, preparedness, emergency management, and recovery).
The research project
Hence, our research group from Université de Montréal aims to develop and test an Experience Feedback methodology for flood events through a partnership and an iterative process with the ministère de la Sécurité publique (MSP) du Québec, a French public research and expertise centre on risks, mobility, planning and the environment (Cerema), and the cities of Deux-Montagnes and Gatineau who also serve as case studies. These two cities were chosen as partners because they have benefitted from the collective exemptions as stipulated in the decree.
Existing Experience Feedback methods
Experience Feedback (or Lessons Learned) is a knowledge management practice useful for learning from past experiences. It has been found that an extensive part of the literature on DRM Experience Feedback mechanisms originates from France, where the French government has formalized a methodology to collect and analyze preparedness and intervention data related to flood risk management (BAPC, 2006), and is currently working on a national framework for Experience Feedback practices focused on flood prevention (Dantec, Galibert and Pipien, 2018).
Our method under development is based on the one formalized by the French government and adapted to the Quebec context. Data collected from several sources such as planning documents; financial aid and damages data supplied by the MSP; as well as interviews with flood victims and local officials, are used to assess policies put in place before, during and after the 2017 flood to manage and mitigate risks. Interviews with flood victims and local officials seek to assess their knowledge and level of preparedness before the event as well as their experiences related to DRM processes. The interview structure focuses on four main categories of knowledge and Experience Feedback: flood hazard, exposed territory (population and buildings), consequences of the flood, and risk management and mitigation measures in place. The following chart proposes a simplified Experience Feedback process that practitioners can build on to collect Experience Feedback data in flood-affected communities.
Prevention and preparedness
The current findings are based on the case study of Deux-Montagnes, a municipality in the metropolitan area of Montreal. In terms of prevention, the research has identified the permanent adaptive measures taken by residents, namely pumps and check valves, and their level of risk awareness before the flood to evaluate the effectiveness of prevention efforts. We found that several residents were not aware of living in a flood zone prior to the 2017 flood, and therefore did not feel the need to implement mitigation measures. For the preparedness phase, differences between residents’ capacity to prepare for a flood were discovered. For example, the elderly who could not rely on family and friends for help were not able to prepare appropriately by elevating their furniture or setting up sandbags. Moreover, many elderly do not have the strength to spend the night activating pumps to protect their house from rising waters. Through the interviews, flood victims were also given the opportunity to point out their preferences in terms of early warning procedures and information sources and assess the effectiveness of the early warning systems in place. Many advocated for a telephone alert system.
The findings for the intervention phase notably included the victims’ lack of information about the services available through the Red Cross during and immediately after the disaster. Motivations of those who had decided not to evacuate were also investigated. It was found that while some were afraid of theft, others stayed to try to protect their residence from the flood for as long as possible. These findings will improve emergency managers’ understanding of the victims’ preoccupations before and during the flood, thereby allowing them to better answer their needs while ensuring their safety.
Regarding the recovery phase, it was found that many victims who had to demolish their residence would have preferred that option even if they were allowed to rebuild, mostly because they preferred to move outside the flood risk area. The prevention and mitigation measures put in place by the residents who rebuilt their residence were also analyzed. The findings show that those whose residence had suffered limited damages tended to repair it identically, and therefore did not reduce their vulnerability to future floods. This highlights the need for a continuous program to promote and finance building adaptations in the long run. Also, the need for updated flood maps and regulation is crucial for the rebuilding process. At last, awareness and communication on risks and adaptation opportunities are needed to strengthen resilience.
Methodological lessons learned
This project has revealed that flood victims and local officials have a genuine interest in sharing their experience to help design better risk management policies. Even though residents and public authorities want to move on from disasters as quickly as possible, taking the time to collect data and identify lessons learned from all phases of DRM, and for all stakeholders, can only be beneficial for building and reinforcing resilience in the long run. Lessons learned are useful not only for the studied territory but also for other areas facing similar risks.
We sincerely thank the residents and local officials who agreed to participate in the study. This research is funded by the Ministère de la Sécurité publique du Québec via the Cadre pour la prévention de sinistres 2013-2020 of the Quebec Government [CPS 17-18-06] through funding of $ 215,000. The France-Quebec cooperation with Cerema is funded by the Ministère des Relations internationales et de la Francophonie. For more information on this initiative, visit the Copari website (French only): www.copari.info.
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Professor Isabelle Thomas
Isabelle Thomas is a professor at the School of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the Université de Montréal. Her research focuses on environmental planning, climate change vulnerability and adaptation, and community resilience. She notably developed a method of analysis of social and territorial vulnerability to floods in urban areas, as well as risk communication strategies.