Planning ahead before a disaster

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Understanding and preparing for flood risks in Canadian communities

Greg Oulahen


“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”

For Ryerson University’s Dr. Greg Oulahen, preparing for future flood risk cannot wait until the waters start rising. Oulahen is an assistant professor in Ryerson’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, where he looks at interactions between people and their environments, especially the factors that influence vulnerability to flood hazards.

Oulahen is part of MEOPAR’s Network, which he joined in 2015 as a postdoctoral fellow under Dr. Stephanie Chang at the University of British Columbia. He is also leading the Response Core’s Prompt Data Collection community of practice, which is working to build capacity for researchers to collect data shortly after a disaster event occurs.

When communities plan for future emergencies, it can be challenging to decide how best to prepare. Many municipalities borrow good ideas from other cities or regions; it’s often smart to look at what works elsewhere, but each community has different characteristics that affect how floods and other hazards would impact the population and their environment. Physical features of the landscape, development patterns, and social and economic factors, for example, all play a role in how vulnerable a community may be to a future crisis.

Oulahen’s postdoctoral work, as part of Dr. Chang’s research group, supported the development of a platform that helps municipal planners compare their own communities to others with similar characteristics, allowing comparisons between communities on the west coast and, eventually, east coast. The tool can improve decision-making by identifying similar communities from which a planner could learn best practices and new ideas, using the Hazard Vulnerability Similarity Index (HVSI). The postdoctoral fellowship wrapped up in December of 2016, but Oulahen remains connected to Dr. Chang’s group, and speaks highly of the ongoing work taking place on the Resilient-C platform.

Working on a MEOPAR postdoctoral fellowship brought Oulahen into close contact with MEOPAR, which he had previously heard of through his PhD supervisor, Dr. Gordon McBean, a MEOPAR principal investigator. As part of the Network, he has taken on the principal investigator role for a new community of practice focusing on prompt data collection. Still in early stages, the community of practice is working to build Canadian capacity for “rapid response” social science research, helping researchers get to an affected community to gather important information immediately following hazard events. It’s a growing area of interest in Canada, and follows on Oulahen’s work with the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), a long-time leader in Canadian hazards research.

Oulahen has transitioned into building his own team now that he is an assistant professor at Ryerson University. His group is currently examining flood risks on Toronto Islands as part of a Great Lakes study, improving understanding of vulnerabilities in urban municipalities and communities next to lakes and river systems. While this study is on freshwater rather than coastal communities, the risks have many similarities: “Whether people live near a body of water for its economic resources or environmental benefits, you have to understand the risks as well as the opportunities the location provides,” Oulahen said.

Being involved with MEOPAR has brought Oulahen into contact with a wide variety of disciplines related to coastal and marine research, enabling him to experience and hear about different training, research and partnership approaches.

“One benefit of being involved with a Network such as MEOPAR is to have a supportive staff at the Administrative Centre who know what they’re doing and can help facilitate good research,” Oulahen said.

He continued, “The idea of carrying out research that’s not only important academically, but also important practically with relevance to public policy and the Canadian public—that’s a real strength of an NCE.”