Dr. Stephanie Sodero is a Banting postdoctoral fellow in Medical Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She recently submitted a book manuscript based on her PhD thesis, “Navigating Disruption: Mobile Society and Hurricanes Juan and Igor: A Travelogue,” completed at Memorial University.
Stephanie sat down with OTM to tell us about her past and present research and what it means for emergency response and mobility in an increasingly erratic climate.
To start – can you tell us what you’re currently up to?
My focus is on vital mobility. I look at how we get vital goods, services, and information from Point A to Point B. I’ve been focusing on blood supply chains and researching questions like: how does blood get from the donor to the recipient; what does that look like under ideal circumstances; and what happens when there’s a climate related extreme event – such as a hurricane or flood – making mobility difficult? This includes considering how vital supply chains impact people’s life chances and whether such supply chains are ready to respond to climate change. My current research came out of my work in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) – when Hurricane Igor hit residents had difficulty accessing things like insulin, methadone, and baby formula.
I understand that you just submitted a manuscript based on your PhD – congratulations! Can you tell us what it’s about?
Thank you! It’s under review right now – fingers crossed. It’s based on my PhD dissertation which is about two record-breaking hurricanes that impacted Atlantic Canada: Hurricane Juan which hit Nova Scotia (NS) in 2003 and Hurricane Igor which hit NL in 2010.
I looked at these two record-breaking storms as the kind of events that we’re expecting more of under climate change. I looked at how they affected mobility for emergency services and average people. The way we get around – driving and flying – runs on fossil fuels and that contributes to climate change. Then climate change in the form of extreme weather disrupts our mobility networks. I am interested in that circularity.
Health, climate change, and transport seem to be the three lines that I’ve been drawn to and have been my three lines for twenty years now. I find it really productive and interesting and so relevant – it’s a thing that people contend with in their every day life. With Hurricane Igor, for example, that affected fly-in/fly-out workers going between NL and Alberta. It has such a wide ranging impact.
In my manuscript I explore how we can reroute society to better cope with climate change, from massive measures like a Green New Deal to community-based solutions like root cellars, which are so common in NL. Can we take the concept of root cellars and ask how it can be applied to healthcare to ensure that we have goods and services that we need distributed across the province, so if the bridge washes out in the next storm there is greater community capacity to respond?
In terms of the On the Move project, hurricanes require the intensive mobilization of some groups of workers, like emergency responders, meteorologists, construction workers, utility crews and insurance adjusters. For other workers, from low-wage workers at Tim Hortons to oil workers flying to Alberta, severe weather can prevent people from making it to work, increasing employment precarity. Looking forward, severe weather promises even more mobility disruption.
Given Halifax recently experienced a Hurricane Dorian (Category 2). Did you notice any differences in response compared to Hurricane Juan?
The good news with Dorian is that there were no fatalities. This was not the case with Hurricane Juan where four to six people died, depending how broadly you put the parameters. The fact that no one died suggests that officials learned from Hurricane Juan and that residents remembered the experience. That’s really promising. The concerning part is that we’re expecting more hurricane activity as ocean waters warm and hurricanes reach more northern latitudes. On one hand, if these events are more frequent and more severe, the cultural memory of how to respond will be stronger. On the other hand, fragilities in infrastructure, like the electrical grid in Nova Scotia and the road system in Newfoundland, still exist. With Hurricane Igor, roads were washed out, and 200 communities were isolated for up to 10 days. There have been improvements – in culvert size, for example, and modifications to electricity grids – but essentially you have a single road network in NL and an above ground electricity system in both provinces that will likely fail when the next storm comes through. We saw this with Dorian.
One of the biggest impacts of Hurricane Dorian was the crane that collapsed on a building. There’s been a lot of conversation about whether they should have taken it down or was there enough notice to take those steps. What do you think it says about Nova Scotia’s emergency preparedness?
I don’t know all the details about the crane case. As a side note, my father’s office was one of several underneath the crane, so that hit home. There needs to be an inquiry or review of that case – and the response to Dorian generally – but I think it’s a really good metaphor from an academic perspective about the fragilities in our society and in our infrastructure systems. No cranes collapsed during Hurricane Juan. I don’t know if there weren’t any construction cranes up at the time, which seems implausible, but from a metaphorical perspective, it seems there will always be new and/or unanticipated sources of risk. As we learn from one storm how to take care of A, B and C, society and technology is continuously changing, so there are questions of how we adapt to the next things. The fact that there were no fatalities was due to prior learning, but it was also due to luck. That no one was injured by the crane collapse was remarkable.
This was a difference between Hurricane Juan and Hurricane Igor. There was a formal review of the emergency response to Hurricane Juan that was made public. There were community hearings held in NL, but based on my findings, no formal public report. Similarly, after Hurricane Dorian it’s important to reflect on the specifics of why this crane fell, but also to ask larger questions: what preparations need to be made as we face more severe events under climate change? That was something following Hurricane Igor – the government was really focused on getting the road network back together, understandably, and they managed to do it in some form in 10 days. That was a source of pride, but at the same time, it seemed to signal the end of discussion. For example, the Newfoundland legislature did not meet until two months after Hurricane Igor, whereas legislators in Nova Scoria met two days after Hurricane Juan. Larger questions weren’t asked, such as what severe storms mean in terms of NL’s response to climate change (including the oil industry), its approach to public safety and service provision, and attention to vulnerable groups, such as senior citizens living on their own. I think it’s the role of government to ask bigger picture questions and support the public in thinking through the implications of climate change. It’s not just putting things ‘back to normal’ because we’re in a post-normal climate. We need to change the way we do things.
What were your recommendations for provinces to better prepare for these storms? Is it enough to mitigate, or must we also adapt to climate change?
We’ve known about climate science for decades now. We had all that time to mitigate, and we didn’t, or we did but marginally, so now we are like the student who left the big essay to the night before and we have to stay up all night and research and write at the same time, and it’s going to be patchy at best. We’ve put ourselves in that situation as a society where we both have to mitigate emissions, which means big changes if we really embrace that challenge, and at the same time we need to adapt to a changing climate.
I understand why activists like Greta Thunberg are angry. You knew the essay was coming and you didn’t prepare and now even bigger changes are needed under an even tighter timeline. In NL, government policy is to maximize oil and tourism, but there is also a climate change policy to reduce emissions. Each seem laudable if looked at it in isolation, but they’re at odds with each other and that indicates the scale of rethinking that needs to be done within NL, across Canada, and globally.
What are the consequences if we don’t have a plan for the next hurricane?
Fortunately we do have a plan. Emergency services in NL and NS are on the ball so there are plans to respond to a storm. However, I was thinking of Hurricane Juan and Hurricane Igor, those are Category 1 and 2 hurricanes respectively. Hurricanes are measured on a scale going up to 5 that is based on wind speed. The damage that we’ve seen in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, those are Category 5 hurricanes where destruction of homes and infrastructure is a given. An assumption I had when writing my book was that we will get more Category 1 and 2 hurricanes. It was a revelation in my own thinking: what if we get hit by a Category 3 or even Category 5 storm? Those are scales of damage with which we in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are completely unfamiliar. The possibility has also been raised: do we need to increase the hurricane scale to Category 6 to reflect even stronger wind speeds?
Based on the experience of Hurricanes Juan, Igor and most recently Dorian, there is strong capacity to deal with Category 1 and 2 hurricanes, through both emergency services and local knowledge. During Hurricane Igor community members helped each other out and the enduring concept of the “resilient Newfoundlander” emerged yet again. We haven’t lowered our emissions to the levels needed, and the resulting warming will result in stronger hurricanes and responding to those, well that’s the stuff of nightmares.
It’s important to emphasize that we are resource rich globally. We are able to put roads and transmission lines back together relatively easily. What you see in Bahamas for example, these are places with far fewer resources to put things back together and likely smaller contributors to the global climate problem overall.
*No Change in the Weather by Ron Hynes – a song about changing economic conditions, a parallel to changing climate conditions