New Brunswick

Have back-to-back floods changed views on climate change? UNB prof launches study

An assistant professor from the University of New Brunswick will study whether the devastating floods in the province the past two springs have changed residents' views on climate change.

Julia Woodhall-Melnik previously studied mental health impacts of 2018 flooding

Some homes in the Grand Lake area were almost completely submerged during the spring flooding. (Radio-Canada)

An assistant professor from the University of New Brunswick will study whether the devastating floods in the province the past two springs have changed residents' views on climate change.

Julia Woodhall-Melnik, who works in the sociology department at the Saint John campus, says she's excited to start her project this summer.

"We actually don't have any good research out there that really tracks people long term and tracks people's changing beliefs on climate change and the changing implications of response when multi-year disasters hit," she said.

Earlier this year, before the flooding started, Woodhall-Melnik studied the mental health impacts of the 2018 flood and evacuations on affected residents.

Although climate change wasn't her focus at that time, she heard a range of views from residents.

"For some individuals it did seem to make them believers because they saw first hand the impacts of extreme global heating and what this does to where they live," she said.

"We had other individuals who said, 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime flood. We won't see it again in my lifetime. It will never happen.'"

Some of the research participants thought 2018 was a once-in-a-lifetime flood, but others believed it could become the new normal. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Some people seemed to want to have something to blame for the flood, she said, citing clearcutting and the Mactaquac Dam as examples.

Finding a cause for the effect seems to serve as a coping mechanism, said Woodhall-Melnik, who held focus groups with more than two dozen residents and spoke with 10 people involved in the official response to the flooding.

"We learned a lot," and ended up with 27 different themes, she said. "People were very gracious about opening up with their experiences."

Report to include recommendations

Woodhall-Melnik is finalizing her report on that research, which she'll submit within the next month to her funders — the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, which focuses on disaster prevention research.

The report will include recommendations to emergency officials, first responders and politicians on how to better support residents, not only during a disaster but also in the aftermath, she said.

For example, some people, especially those close to Saint John, wanted to see the army involved, she said.

"Which was really interesting because the army actually came out this year."

Many people also said they could have used some help navigating the provincial government's disaster financial assistance process, said Woodhall-Melnik.

Community resilience

Community building "really jumped out" as a positive impact, she said during a telephone interview Monday from Vancouver, where she's been speaking about the social impacts of climate change at a conference.

"We did expect some sort of stress and anxiety related to the flood," Woodhall-Melnik said. "I mean, your possessions and your house and your investment are being damaged, right? So we knew there would be some form of impact.

Julia Woodhall-Melnik said many flood-affected residents spoke fondly of the help they received from neighbours and strangers alike. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

"But then we noticed that community members really came together and rallied together to support one another, and that this offered people a form of almost catharsis. They were able to heal a bit and help themselves a bit and get rid of some of those negative impacts of the stress by reaching out to their neighbours and banding together and helping one another."

Many people shared stories about neighbours and even strangers bringing them food, offering boats and helping to sandbag.

"Community resiliency really shone through."

Julia Woodhall-Melnik is an associate professor in the department of social sciences at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. She has studied the emotional effects of the 2018 flood. 12:55

Some of the other issues discussed included whether people should make their homes flood-proof or move.

"You have this range of people who say, 'I really love my community and I don't want to leave, but I don't know if I can stay,' to other people who were living on properties that were owned by great-grandparents," she said. "They had a deep family connection to their home and having to leave would be heartbreaking for them."

Woodhall-Melnik's 2019 study is being funded by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction as well as the Harrison McCain Young Scholars Foundation.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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