Stress and high water: how flooding impacts our mental health

Cottage on the Kingston Peninsula overtaken by water during the 2018 flood in N.B.

This year’s historic flooding in New Brunswick damaged about 12,000 properties across the province – but it did more than just destroy bricks and mortar. A recent study released by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation found that residential basement flooding also has a serious impact on the mental health of homeowners.

The devastation of the 2018 flood made it clear that climate change is growing stronger by the day, and it shows no mercy. As climate change continues to intensify, extreme weather is on the rise in Canada. According to a 2018 report, out of all extreme weather events, flooding causes the most expensive damage – often resulting in millions worth of property destruction. The Insurance Bureau of Canada shared that 58 percent of catastrophic insurable loss claims between 2008 and 2015 were due to water damage.

Intact Centre for Climate Adaptation conducted 100 interviews and surveys with residents of Burlington, Ontario, who faced a flood in 2014 which damaged around 3,500 homes. Their research found that the average cost of a flooded basement in Canada is about $43,000. Read the full report here.

The organization found that 56 percent of flooded households with one or more working members were forced to take an average of seven days off work to deal with damages; that is approximately 10x more time off than Ontario’s monthly average.

Close to half (48 per cent) of survey respondents who experienced flooding said they were still worried – three years post flood – every time it rains, compared to the three per cent of respondents who didn’t experience flooding. The constant stress and financial burden of a flood-prone basement can take a serious toll on a homeowner’s financial stability, physical health and mental wellbeing.

Many flood victims also said they struggled to navigate their property and casualty insurance coverage. The uncertainty of the amount of coverage to be received was an additional stressor, and delays in compensation caused frustration for many.

The report states that without action to reduce flood risks, the mental health impacts are likely to worsen as flooding increases in frequency and severity across the country. It calls for action to be taken at both individual and national levels, to best prepare cities for climate change induced weather events that are yet to come.

The Conservation Council’s former Director of Climate Change and Energy Solutions, Louise Comeau, conducted a research project in 2016 that looked at the impacts of Post Tropical Storm Arthur, and Fredericton’s capacity to adapt to climate change.

Comeau conducted interviews with city officials, community leaders and citizens to grasp the damage caused by the tropical storm that hit New Brunswick in 2014, causing millions in damage and leaving 140,000 households and businesses without electricity, some for up to two weeks.

While most officials felt the city was prepared for the storm, the interviews with citizens revealed that many had felt a serious emotional impact from the damage it caused.

“Something that surprised me about my experience of the storm was how strongly I reacted emotionally. I felt betrayed and abandoned. I knew that no one had deliberately taken away our electricity, that indeed people were working long hard hours to bring it back, yet the feeling persisted. I felt resentful towards those who didn’t lose power, and simultaneously embarrassed with myself for having these feelings,” said one citizen.

Comeau concluded her research with a list of recommendations for adapting to climate change induced events, including:

  • Ensure all institutions including small businesses and financial institutions are represented on the Fredericton’s Emergency Management Organization (EMO) committee
  • Ensure EMO receives regular briefings on climate change to increase understanding and management of community risks and impacts
  • Prepare for both physical and mental health effects associated with climate change induced extreme events
  • Significantly increase outreach and education to citizens on causes of and solutions to ‘human-caused’ climate change
  • Change rules so that disaster relief policies reduce exposure to chronic flood risks
    • Bylaws/zoning enforced to reduce exposure to flood plains
  • Plan for climate change adaptation and emergency preparedness on a Greater Fredericton basis
  • Nurture Fredericton’s greatest assets: Perceived trust and the strong belief by people interviewed that his community is “caring, friendly, safe, clean, green, well-managed, has good infrastructure, with a strong history and culture”

It is inevitable that climate change will continue to serve unpredictable weather events – that’s why it is crucial for governments, organizations and citizens to address the reality of the risks climate change creates. Preparing and adapting for climate change is the best way to ensure our communities are protected and supported.  

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