York researchers speak on flood and wildfire management, evacuation during a pandemic

As Canada heads into flood and wildfire season, how does the current situation with COVID-19 stretch resources to effectively plan for and manage these potential disasters, as well as react and organize evacuations if necessary?

Three professors from the Disaster & Emergency Management (DEM) Program in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies are available to discuss how dealing with a pandemic could affect efforts to manage a disaster or emergency and what can be done.

Nirupama Agrawal

Associate Professor Nirupama Agrawal says early warning systems and the use of prediction modelling could help with advanced planning and management. She emphasizes the necessity for coordination of efforts of various stakeholders from local, provincial and federal levels if necessary, including the healthcare system, disaster management organizations, community organizations and subject matter experts.

In Alberta, the Athabasca River in Fort McMurray is currently ice-jammed, and due to the concern of flooding, gas is being shut off to Grayling Terrace. The heat or hot water will not be available for residents if they do not evacuate. With the evacuation order in place, physical distancing and the risk of contracting the coronavirus will be challenging for the emergency management professionals to navigate. Similar concerns are around northern communities in Ontario that are evacuated annually due to floods.

Complexities due to COVID-19 include potential flooding in places like the Toronto Islands as Lake Ontario levels rise. “Frequent and prolonged floods cause water-borne diseases that can have devasting compounding effects with COVID-19, which is known for diarrhea and nausea,” says Agrawal.

Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy

Assistant Professor Eric Kennedy talks about how wildfire management strategies need to be adapted as a result of COVID-19 and how agencies are preparing for these overlapping disasters given the active wildfire season forecasted. Firefighting often involves a lot of people working together in close quarters, which is a difficult model given constraints under the pandemic.

“Wildfire management agencies are preparing for a unique wildfire season,” says Kennedy. “Many of the normal strategies – from operational headquarters to tents in the field – need to be considered in light of the pandemic.”

Assistant Professor Aaida Mamuji says the current public health measures will make management of evacuations, especially those of a large scale, particularly challenging. Whether it’s transportation that respects physical distancing or the effective management of evacuation centres and group lodging facilities in a way that limits the potential spread of disease, adherence to current guidelines will be difficult.

Aaida Mamuji

At the same time, options such as staying with friends or family may not be possible due to restrictions.

Mamuji says emergency managers and social services need to plan ahead for those communities most at risk of flooding or wildfires. They should be creative in terms of lodging, realize that personal protective equipment for evacuees will be needed, and ensure that additional supports are available.

“It’s important to have mental health supports available as the stress of compounded disasters is unimaginable,” says Mamuji.

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