While certain geographical areas have reputations as hotspots for attracting hurricanes or tornadoes (“we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto!”) the reality is that every region has its own propensity for various forms of natural disasters, no matter how infrequently they occur there. Recent news coverage of the mudslides in the west Kootenays reminds us that disaster can strike anywhere, and anytime, and that we need to be prepared for this when it happens. So what causes a mudslide, and how can you minimize the damage you experience when one strikes? Mudslides are typically caused by heavy rains in mountainous areas where vegetation is minimal (either because of human intervention, such as clear cutting, or natural causes like wildfires). These rains cause the debris forming the top layer of the ground to become saturated in water, and to start pouring down slopes.
There are several health risks that mudslides can pose. For one, the rapidity of the movement of water and debris can lead to injuries. For another, energy, water, and sewage systems can be disrupted and damaged, and that can lead to injury or sickness. Additionally, transit routes become disrupted so that getting help or medical attention becomes difficult.
If you live in an area prone to mudslides, there are several things you can do to minimize their impact on you. To begin with, survey the area around you, and if the visual cues (mountains, clearings of land) suggest susceptibility, get in touch with neighbours or authorities to find out about mudslides that have occurred where you live. Also try and find out if your community has an emergency/evacuation plan, and develop a specific plan for your own family. Mudslides are not typically covered by basic home insurance plans, so if you know your area is likely to get hit by them, it might be a good idea to invest in additional protection against such a disaster.
During heavy rainfall, check with Environment Canada for warnings they may issue. Monitor the water levels in your area to be aware of sudden increases or decreases. Drive cautiously. After a mudslide, avoid the site of the disaster. Check frequently with your community for updates about the safety of your neighbourhood. Keep an eye out for injured people, and report damaged utlity lines to your community’s authorities. As a future measure of protection, consider getting in touch with a geotechnical expert (who your city staff should be able to help you locate) for suggestions as to how you may modify your property to minimize mudslide damage.