Cross Country Checkup

Floods, fires and ice storms: An ex-soldier's battle on the front line of natural disasters

As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 13 years, Josh Bowen's resume reads like a catalog of Canadian catastrophes. Now, the former soldier is helping other communities prepare for natural disasters - and he says planning is key.

The communities that do best in crisis are the ones that plan ahead, says disaster management expert

Josh Bowen during an emergency management training exercise. (Submitted by Josh Bowen/Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)

When it comes to extreme weather and natural disasters, Josh Bowen has seen Canada at its worst.

As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 13 years, his resume reads like a catalog of Canadian catastrophes. He worked on the front lines and in emergency command centres during the 2011 Manitoba floods, the 2013 flood that devastated the town of High River, and the massive Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016, to name a few.

"Being able to protect and serve Canadians, at home, in their hour of need, it was an incredibly humbling experience," said Bowen.

But facing the country's most serious ice storms, spring floods and summer wildfires firsthand, year after year, also gave him invaluable insight into how communities can prepare for environmental disasters.

"Climate change is a thing... we're going to be experiencing far more of these [extreme weather] events," said Bowen, who now teaches emergency management at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton.

"So, in terms of disaster and emergency management in Canada, the idea is — how do we mitigate, prevent, respond to, and recover from disasters?"

Members of the Canadian armed forces leav Prince Albert in light armoured vehicles heading towards a wildfire in norther Saskatchewan in July, 2015. Josh Bowen was among the soldiers who helped battle the wildfire. (Mélanie Ferguson/Canadian Armed Forces)

Responding to disasters

Time and again, Bowen has parachuted into crisis conditions, and said the towns that fare best are those that plan ahead for times of need.

"If you're, say, a small community in northern Ontario and you need to evacuate your community of 3,000 people, have you already spoken to the neighbouring communities — north, east, south, west — to say, 'Can you set up a reception center if something comes?'" Bowen said.

"Knowing where to send people in advance is going to be one of the biggest things to protecting life safely."

Bowen says it's crucial for local response teams to prepare for the influx of outsiders who arrive to assist when a community is under siege from a natural disaster.

"You have to very quickly build relationships and trust — and that is always a challenge."

He said seemingly small details such as what to do with pets and livestock can get overlooked in disaster plans, if local and provincial officials aren't working together.

"The idea is, let's build our network, our community and our capacity to respond, so that when something does happen, we don't have to figure out who could do this."

Members of the 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron out of Edmonton fly a CH-146 Griffon to view the damage created by wildfire near Fort McMurray, Alta. on May 5, 2016. The fire lead to the largest evacuation in Alberta's history, with around 88,000 people forced out of their homes. (MCpl VanPutten/ Canadian Armed Forces)

Spending money on mitigation

Canadian emergency managers learned a lot from extreme disasters such as the Slave Lake and Fort McMurray wildfires, but Bowen pointed to the billions of dollars saved by the construction of the Winnipeg floodway as a case study for why governments need to allocate proper resources to disaster prevention.

"The universally accepted statistic is that for every dollar you spend on mitigation measures, you save six in the response," he said.

Mitigation measures don't always require billion-dollar infrastructure investment, said Bowen, using the example of hurricane ties in Florida.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a state-wide building policy was put in place requiring all new buildings to have hurricane ties, which help make them more resistant to high winds. The requirement was later extended to retrofitting older homes.

The small pieces of hardware, which reinforce connections between a roof and walls, cost little for homeowners to purchase and install, but had huge impacts in saving the roofs of homes during hurricanes and high winds.

"It's really saying, 'How do we get ahead of these disasters before they happen?'"

Strangers helping strangers

Josh Bowen, centre, leans over a table during an emergency management training exercise. (Submitted by Josh Bowen/Northern Alberta Institute of Technology )

On an individual level, Bowen said it's essential for Canadians to have emergency preparedness kits, so they can safely endure the first 72 hours of any disaster.

He recalled stories of Fort McMurray residents who, with only an hour's notice to pack before fleeing the wildfire, left behind critical documents such as insurance or passports.

"They didn't have copies of any of their documents, but they certainly had their skis," he said.

On a brighter note, Bowen has witnessed extraordinary generosity and strength during times of crisis. While diverting dikes in Winnipeg during the 2011 floods, he recalls community members bringing food to exhausted soldiers and volunteers.

"Time and time again, we see neighbours helping neighbours, strangers helping strangers, and people just pitching in to really help out wherever they can," said Bowen.

"It's fantastic to see and it's a significant indicator of resilience within a community."

While Canadians may be resilient, he warned against complacency.

When major disasters happen, those in the emergency industry refer to them as "focusing events," a critical moment of heightened awareness that opens doors for public education on disaster preparedness.

"You have a very brief period of time after those to catch people's attention and actually change some behavior," said Bowen.

With files from Sheyfali Saujani

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.