Building Back Better: Getting Ready for Canada’s Largest Post Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction

By: Ali Asgary, PhD, Associate Professor of Disaster & Emergency Management, York University

Alberta premier predicted that Fort McMurray residents and businesses may return to their city starting June 1st.  This will mark the beginning of one of Canada’s largest post disaster recovery and reconstruction. One of the biggest case happened almost 100 years ago in Halifax after the after the December 6, 1917 explosion that destroyed 1,630 homes and damaged many more thousands. Our most recent post disaster recovery and reconstruction experiences are from the 2011 Slave Lake fire, the 2013 Lac Megantic train derailment and the 2013 Calgary flooding.  Although none of these cases is comparable with the mega recovery cases such the Kobe earthquake, Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti Earthquake, and 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Fort McMurray fire has created a huge recovery and reconstruction tasks for Canada as a whole and Alberta in Particular.

When speaking at the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai (March 2015), the government of Canada’s representative, Ms. Lori MacDonald could hardly imagine that one year later Canada could be one of the first countries that should consult its outcome (Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030) regarding the post disaster recovery and reconstruction. Sendai Framework has 13 guiding principles. Principle K states that “In the post-disaster recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction phase, it is critical to prevent the creation of and to reduce disaster risk by “Building Back Better” and increasing public education and awareness of disaster risk”.

But what “Building Back Better” exactly means, especially in the case of Fort Mc Murray?  It basically means that recovery and reconstruction should be considered as an opportunity to reduce future disaster risk factors (wildfire and others). Unfortunately, numerus experiences of post disaster recovery and reconstruction show that our tendency for fast rebuilding and rebuilding to the pre disaster conditions will recreate the vulnerabilities and exposure to hazards. Facing public pressures from exhausted people living in temporary shelters, many decisions are made fast that does not allow enough time for proper analysis. Building back better approach means that recovery and reconstruction should be looked at much more than just a return to the pre-disaster conditions.

One of the corner stones of building back better is high level of political commitment and strong institutional frameworks. This can happen easier when all levels of governments have recovery plans and strategies before disasters happen, which is unfortunately lacking or weak in in Canada and elsewhere. Such plans and policies facilitate, coordinate, and guide post-disaster planning and reduce the likelihood of behaviors (such as the sharp increase in labor wages and building materials in the disaster impacted areas as experienced after the Slave Lack Fire) or decisions that may be against the idea of building back better. We need to establish and enhance national and provincial recovery frameworks, institutions, and standards to make sure that we are ready for the building back better recovery types. Building back better also needs better national and provincial financial and resource management strategies for recovery and reconstruction. The existing disaster assistance mechanisms are out dated and belong to the era that disasters were not annual phenomenon in Canada. Finally, we must try to enhance our recovery planning capacity at the national, provincial, and community level, and redefine the roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders. We may even need to define mutual assistance for recovery and reconstruction that facilitates resource sharing and bi-lateral support at all levels of governments.

Reporting back to the UN regarding the implementation of the Sendai Framework in a few years’ time, we should show the world that Fort McMurray’s recovery and reconstruction is a true example of building back better model.