When a natural disaster hits a community, the first priority is getting everyone out safely. But as Leann Hackman-Carty watched the flood waters rise in parts of Alberta in 2013, she realized that helping businesses survive was a close second. The chief executive officer of Economic Developers Alberta (EDA) sprang into action and created an Economic Disaster Recovery Program that continues to evolve and is bringing economic development and emergency management into closer alignment.

Hackman-Carty began by contacting the Washington D.C.-based International Economic Development Council (IEDC). They pointed her to resources and offered to provide technical team volunteers to go into communities and assess needs. The teams were made up of people who had been through a disaster and had specialized skills in business or economic recovery.

Hackman-Carty also reached out to the British Columbia Economic Development Association, a group that had put together a technical team after a factory burned down in one of their communities.

EDA pulled together enough funding to take technical teams into 11 Alberta communities in 2013. Having the support was an enormous benefit for economic developers who were basically going it alone.

“When a disaster hits, depending on the level of preparation a community or its economic development practitioners have, it’s pretty stressful,” says Hackman-Carty. “You may have a situation where you have a lone ranger economic developer working in a remote community. They feel very alone and overwhelmed.

“Then you offer to bring in a team that has been through a disaster, who is there to support you, and who is prepared to consult with your community stakeholders in order to give practical, proven ideas and recommendations about ways to help accelerate business and economic recovery efforts. It gives them confidence in the decisions they need to make today, and quite frankly, hope for tomorrow.”

Three years later, when wildfires caused the northeastern community of Fort McMurray to evacuate, EDA stepped up again to support the city’s business community and economic recovery.

“EDA really supported us initially. They reached out and assisted us in developing the Business and Economic Recovery Plan that was passed by council in May 2016,” says Lisa Slade, acting manager of economic development with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).

Photo courtesy: Rocky View County

The economic recovery has been ongoing and in January 2017, the RMWB contracted with EDA to have them send a technical team to the region to do an economic opportunity assessment. “It gave us a better understanding of our business community needs and helped solidify that we were on the right track, doing what the community needed,” says Slade.

The municipality is now collaborating with Community Futures – a federal government funded agency – to deliver the Wood Buffalo Recovery Business Loan Program that’s support- ing businesses with both loans and coaching. RMWB Economic Development worked closely with the Canadian Red Cross in delivering its Support to Small Business program and the RMWB’s Workforce Support Program. This type of collaboration made it easier for the business community to access the available support and rebound quicker.

We see emergency preparation and resilience as a business advantage. If we have resilient communities and strong, well-coordinated chambers of commerce working in partnership with us on these plans and strategies, that’s a major opportunity for investment attraction because companies have that level of comfort.”
– David Kalinchuk, economic development manager with Rocky View County

“We acted quickly,” says Slade, of the municipality’s efforts to help the business community after the fire. “However, if we had the plan in place prior to the fire, things would have happened even faster.”

Hackman-Carty has been looking for ways to bring the Economic Disaster Recovery Program to more Alberta communities, and in the fall of 2016, she learned that IEDC had developed a training program to help communities develop economic resiliency. “Being the person I am, I asked if I could have access to it,” she remembers. “But I knew I needed to Canadianize the content if it was going to be relevant to our communities.”

IEDC signed a memorandum of understanding with EDA to pilot its Economic Resilience Training for Community and Regional Leaders in Canada. In 2017, the training was piloted in four Alberta communities: Whitecourt, Parkland County, Vegreville and Rocky View County.

The two-day course covered a number of topics related to disaster preparation, building economic resilience in communities, building capacity for recovery and helping the business community recover after a disaster.

“It was an eye opener in some ways for us,” says Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak. “We have a director of emergency services, and we have extensively, we thought at the time, prepared for emergency management. We had all the systems in place, so we could start enacting things like an emergency operations centre, our partners were in place, we had done a few tabletop sessions. From that perspective, we thought we were prepared.”

Photo courtesy: Rocky View County

What Chichak and other participants hadn’t realized was that they didn’t necessarily have everything in place to help after initial emergency management. Emergency management professionals are highly trained to handle the response phase of a disaster, but recovery is not usually in their job description.

“The response phase is tightly controlled and very logical,” says Hackman-Carty. “But recovery is not like that; it’s all over the place. The emergency managers do what they are supposed to do, and they are very good at it, but when they’re done they leave. By having them participate in this training, we are hearing them say ‘wow, I never thought about business and how the decisions we make upfront can enable businesses to recover faster or inhibit them.’”

An example of a decision made by emergency management that can drastically affect the business community is the decision of who gets back into evacuated areas and when. During and immediately after a disaster, most business owners can’t get into the community for their own safety. But for some, critical action needs to be taken.

Hackman-Carty remembers a meat processing plant in one flood-impacted community that lost thousands in inventory in 2013 because the owner couldn’t go in and turn on the generator. That could have been avoided if the emergency management team was aware of the situation ahead of time, and had included turning on the generator as part of its response plan.

In the pilot training program, participants learned how New Orleans and other communities in the United States handle business re-entry through a tiered program. Businesses are qualified ahead of time and placed in one of three tiers. Those in tier one are allowed back in first to support the response team with critical products and services. Those in other tiers have a better idea of when they’ll be allowed to start rebuilding. Whitecourt wanted to take part in the pilot because it faces numerous potential disasters.

The town of about 10,000 people is situated 180 kilometres west of Edmonton. Two rivers, a railway and a busy highway run through the community, which is surrounded by forest and oil and gas operations.

“In light of the disasters that have taken place in Alberta, we felt it was important to be proactive and learn from individuals and organizations that have been through past disasters. How they have been managed, how these communities could have looked at things a bit differently, what worked and what didn’t,” says Chichak. “As elected officials and administrators, you have to make sure you are doing your due diligence and looking into the future so you’re prepared.”

The Town of Whitecourt included other organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, the provincial government and Community Futures Yellowhead East in the training.

“This course gave us a lot of good ideas to move forward and for how we can move forward collaboratively. We’ve always believed in partnership and it reinforced why you need good partners. It takes great partnerships to build a viable, sustainable and growing community,” says Chichak.

Rocky View County is in the process of developing a Regional Emergency Management Program to build capacity within its numerous small municipalities and the county, which covers the areas around Calgary in a horseshoe shape along the city’s west, north and east borders. The program will help ensure that the various emergency management teams are using the same systems, processes, documents and language so they can better prepare for and respond to disasters. The EDA training program provided ideas that will be used to develop the plan.

“The training program has been part of a greater evolution of economic development responding to emergencies,” says David Kalinchuk, economic
development manager with Rocky View County. “We see emergency preparation and resilience as a business advantage. If we have resilient communities and strong, well-coordinated chambers of commerce working in partnership with us on these plans and strategies, that’s a major opportunity for investment attraction because companies have that level of comfort.”

Economic Resilience Training

With the pilot project complete, EDA is offering the two-day program and a one-day condensed version of the Economic Resilience Training for Community and Regional Leaders to communities across Canada. For more information, visit www.edaalberta.ca

Like most communities, Rocky View County’s emergency management team has historically focused on response. But after flooding in Bragg Creek in 2005, 2009 and again in 2013, it’s realizing that isn’t enough. The county recognized that it needed to develop a new section within its emergency plan that identifies a process specifically dealing with business re-entry plans to help businesses get up and running with the least amount of downtime should a disaster occur.

“Emergency management has gone through that whole evolution. It’s been recognized right across North America that your dollar goes further if you start looking at mitigation and preparation so you can get back up and running quickly,” says Randy Smith, director of emergency management and fire chief for Rocky View County.

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