Edmonton-based study aims to help cities improve planning for natural disasters

As natural disasters like fire, extreme heat waves and flooding are on the rise globally due to a changing climate, cities like Edmonton are looking at how they can be better prepared.

According to Stephen Wong, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, many communities lack clear evacuation plans, and communication to residents is inconsistent across jurisdictions.

To help improve that situation, Wong has received a grant from the City of Edmonton and the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation to study evacuation procedures and the nascent concept of "resilience hubs" — community shelters that provide resources and assistance during climate-related disasters and disruptions.

Starting this spring, Wong plans to collect data through household surveys and focus groups in at-risk communities, focusing on disadvantaged populations who are at the greatest risk during disasters.

Wong acknowledges there's no one-size-fits-all solution but hopes the results of his research will guide people in the right direction.

"My work in disasters focuses on how people behave," he said. "Once we understand the choices people make, we can start to change our transportation and emergency responses, strategies and policies.

"With climate change, the types of disasters we saw in B.C. last year are likely to increase in size, scope and frequency, especially when it comes to extreme wildfires, flooding and drought."

Evidence is key to evacuation planning

Wong joined the U of A last fall after completing his award-winning PhD at Berkeley, which examined transportation and evacuation strategies for governments preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.

In one review of California wildfire evacuations between 2017 and 2019, he found that most jurisdictions in the state lacked the public resources to adequately evacuate all populations in danger. In a further study he provided a list of recommendations on resource sharing among residents and companies.

He said evacuation plans should be based on data — including fire and traffic modelling, surveys and mobile phone data as well as interviews, focus groups and community meetings — but rarely are.

"We need playbooks, guidelines and plans ahead of time, and they should be empirically based on research."

Wong now leads the Resilient and Sustainable Mobility and Evacuation (RESUME) Group at the U of A. In his own research, he adopts a multidisciplinary approach that "sits at the intersection of engineering, social science and public policy." He describes it as a mix of the qualitative and quantitative, the former giving him valuable perspective — through questionnaires, surveys, interviews and focus groups — on people's needs and choices in evacuations.

He talked to several vulnerable groups affected by California wildfires: people with disabilities, older adults, people with lower incomes, and a group of Spanish-speaking people. He wanted to understand why they made the decisions they did during the wildfires.

"I was inspired by how all the groups developed policies that would meet their needs," Wong said. "Had we applied only a quantitative method, we would have missed their perspectives and voices in the research ."

Disaster resilience begins in neighbourhoods

A crucial part of his Edmonton study will be an examination of how to implement resilience hubs. It's a relatively new concept in disaster planning, an approach that shifts power to neighbourhoods and communities to help residents co-ordinate resource distribution and services before, during and after a natural hazard event.

Operating as a network, some hubs might connect buses and other modes of transportation. Others might serve as evacuation shelters, distributing emergency resources and information. In some regions of California, for example, there are community hubs that kick in during power outages for recharging batteries, picking up food and water, and cooling down.

"Ideally, resilience hubs would be places where resources can be exchanged very quickly, and where you can get information about how to recover after a disaster, such as a flood or wildfire," Wong said. "They can easily double, especially in Edmonton, with community leagues or schools, which enables them to promote climate equity year-round."

Wong's research aims to reveal why people in Edmonton will make certain decisions during a disaster, in order to advise the city on supporting infrastructure. It comes down to thinking differently about the built environment and urban design, he said, developing resilience within communities at the neighbourhood and local levels.

"In that approach to land use, how do we change strategies to improve transportation systems for sustainability, for resilience? How can we increase walking or biking, connecting bike paths to specific hubs? What changes are needed to improve public transit, especially for those without a vehicle to help them evacuate?"

While he noted that no evacuation plan could ever prepare a community for all possible hazards and disasters, Wong stressed that evidence-based research could significantly improve the effectiveness and feasibility of evacuation plans.

"What's problematic is that many jurisdictions in North America — both Canada and the United States — don't have evacuation plans, or they have an evacuation plan that isn't grounded in research. This is often a result of poor funding, not enough staff or the overwhelming nature of back-to-back disasters. We need to better connect researchers with practitioners and provide sufficient funding for jurisdictions to develop holistic evacuation plans, especially to help those most disadvantaged and underserved."

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