What the city of Alberta can teach us about dealing with climate disasters


When High River, Alta., began to reopen in the weeks and months following the devastating 2013 floods, Marianne Dixon noticed that casual conversation around the city had changed.

Customers in line at the grocery store went to the cashier about insurance claims, or when they could return to their homes—some of which were left uninhabited.

“We were getting grocery stores, bank tellers, hairdressers all getting overwhelmed because that’s where people were landing,” said Dixon, executive director of Wild Rose Community Connections, which provides social services in High River.

On June 20, 2013, after excessive rainfall flooded southern Alberta, nearly 60 percent of the High River was heavy and more than 70 percent of its homes were damaged. Five people died as a result; Two were from the High River.

The earlier floods did not wreak such havoc, partly, According to the Alberta Flood Recovery Taskforce, because of how and where the city was developed. A 2017 study cited in a federal government report suggested climate change resulted from man-made greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the potential for heavy rainfall that led to flooding.

More than 13,000 people – the vast majority of the city’s residents – were forced to leave with lasting emotional and psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which experts say we should be better off with with such a disaster. need to be understood properly. Happening more frequently due to climate change.

Katie Hayes first saw those concerns when she conducted field research for her PhD on the mental health effects of climate change in 2018.

I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I would recover from this disaster after five-seven years. But it was true.

“Many people always talked about looking up at the sky, wondering when the next torrential downpour is going to happen,” said Hayes, a senior policy analyst at Health Canada’s Bureau of Climate Change and Innovation. “People reported feeling anxious every time they went over the bridge to enter the community.”

High River as a case study

Eight years after the flood, the federal government is turning to High River’s experiences to guide other communities on how to support mental well-being in the aftermath of a climate-related disaster. Hayes said those lessons will be incorporated into the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate Report, to be released in late 2021, that will address mental health for the first time.

Their research will inform part of a chapter examining policies and programs for all levels of governments, which may include simplifying access to funding for services or practical guides and training.

The need for such resources became apparent recently when Lytton, BC. A forest fire broke out in the village of

“What we are seeing in Lytton, BC, could have long-term psychological effects on the entire community,” Hayes wrote in an email. “In a changing climate, many of these effects may resume, or be exacerbated by future wildfires and periods of extreme heat.”

community driven support

David Robertson, a minister at High River United Church, resurfaced memories of the 2013 floods about the wildfires. While the nature of disasters is different, “emotionally, I think the responses are going to be very similar,” he said.

“I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I would recover from this disaster after five to seven years,” he said. “But it was true.”

As the residents of High River navigate an emotional recovery alongside the physical cleansing of the community, Robertson saw the need to facilitate “cascading care”, which he called “requires a sense of awareness and effort for all.” is. “

For Robertson, that included organizing events as well as bringing local leaders together, including workshops for front-line workers on psychological and emotional response to disasters, held in 2014 and 2015.

The province initially funded $50 million for mental health care, including the establishment of a chief mental health officer by 2015. Meanwhile, the City of High River had raised $250,000 to provide free aid from the United and Lutheran Churches of Canada, organizations and private donors.

In early 2014, the High River Consulting Center was launched in partnership with the province-funded Calgary Consulting Center. But by June 2016, the money had dried up.

“Yet the needs were still there and the community recognized it,” Hayes said.

In 2017, the Foothills Counseling Center was created to provide support on a sliding scale, subsidized by the city and a grant.

“Developing strong working relationships with local community partners remains a focus,” Alberta Health Services said in a statement.

In the years following the flood, local groups worked on other initiatives to support mental health.

Wild Rose Community Connections used a tool called “How is Your 5” along with other local service providers. Mercy trademarked by the Missouri-based health care system, It was used by Joplin, Mo. In 2011, the community was devastated by an EF5 tornado.

Dixon said this approach prompts people to ask questions about five aspects of their lives — work, food, sleep, play, love — in an effort to get a deeper look at how they are feeling.

Then there was the Safe Spot, with an orange dot on a door in town symbolizing “an emotional safe space” where people trained to talk to individuals in distress could refer them for resources.

Safe Spot was “a big lesson learned” from High River that could be brought to other communities, Hayes said.

not equal access to support

But she notes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health.

In his research, Hess found that after a flood, outside help from the community was not always in line with what residents wanted.

Many people felt they were “not in the driver’s seat for their own recovery,” and were excluded from emergency response, she said.

“They really needed to be there, because they were going to be there well afterwards” [the] The emergency response was gone.”

Hayes said access to information and support was not the same for everyone.

“The groups that performed best were groups that knew where and how to get support,” she said, and were predominantly English speakers.

Liz Vigueres, who moved to the High River from Mexico five years before the flood, said it had a “doubling” effect on families like hers.

First, the pitfalls of “so many things when you … come to a new country”. Then there was the trauma of displacement from the flood, especially with children “experiencing high levels of stress”.

Communications in the immediate aftermath of the disaster were not always translated into other languages, Hayes said – Vigueras said that could be done to support the well-being of some people whose primary language is not English.

“Medical terms have to be very precise when you want to express your feelings,” Vigueres said, adding that language and cultural familiarity can help bridge that gap in accessibility.

In Saddlebrook, a trailer community equipped to house 1,200 people displaced by the disaster where Vigueras and his family lived for months before returning home, he basically helped comfort other Mexicans. saw an opportunity to She started a Mexican folkloric dance group that continues to practice and perform at High River.

Dancing was part of the recovery, she said, “because [it] Gave us time to be active, keep your mind busy.”

“Creating flexibility is one of the goals.”


Written and produced by Molly Segala

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