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Meteorologist says national flash flood warning system would save lives

A week after floods in Nova Scotia contributed to the deaths of four people, including two children, some people are asking why more wasn’t done to warn residents of possible flash floods. 

Jim Abraham, a retired meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, has been calling for a national flash flood warning system for years.

The organization handles weather forecasts, like rainfall warnings. One was issued ahead of last Friday’s storm, but each province is responsible for issuing its own flash flood warnings.

Some provinces that have historically had higher flood risks, like Ontario and Quebec, have their own forecasting programs, but Nova Scotia does not.

“We don’t see a frequent number of floods and so the province hasn’t invested in a flood forecast program,” Abraham said. 

Jim Abraham, a former meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, poses for a picture. He is wearing a light blue striped golf shirt and a blue baseball cap.
Jim Abraham, a former meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, says it’s time for a national flash flood warning system. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

With climate change, floods are likely to grow more common, Abraham said, making the need for a standardized warning system even more important. He believes it would save lives. 

U.S. system dates back to 1950s

The U.S. has had a national warning system since the 1950s.

Kate Abshire, the national flood services lead for the U.S. National Weather Service, said the goal is to provide a warning more than an hour in advance.

“As much lead time as possible is generally thought to be a better thing,” Abshire said.

She said flash flooding is especially dangerous because of how rapidly conditions can change. Even if floodwaters look shallow, drivers should steer clear, as the risk of vehicles being swept away can be high.

The top of a service truck is seen abandoned in floodwater following a major rain event in Halifax on Saturday, July 22, 2023.
The top of a service truck is seen abandoned in floodwater following last weekend’s storm. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

More than half of U.S. flooding fatalities occur in vehicles, said Abshire.

“We have a really big push to tell people, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’ she said. “It’s a gamble you shouldn’t take.”

Education a key component

In Nova Scotia, many residents were unfamiliar with how to safely navigate last weekend’s floods.

“It’s just such a tragic situation,” said Abraham. “If we had a national flash flood forecast program, it’s not only the warnings itself [that would help], it’s the public education.”

In a statement, Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said municipalities are responsible for leading “the response to events affecting their area, such as when a flood warning may be needed.”

An emergency alert would then be issued in co-ordination with the EMO, the department said. 

Fairbairn said the province is looking to hire a flood co-ordinator and stormwater engineer “to implement effective flood prevention and climate adaptation measures.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada said in a statement that its “primary responsibility is to support flood reduction agencies and other jurisdictions by monitoring and predicting weather conditions that may influence flooding, and by measuring and monitoring water levels and flows.”

But Abraham believes it’s time for a more co-ordinated response.

“All levels of government, along with citizens, and the insurance industry … needs to work together on this challenge,” he said. 

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