Fifteen years ago, an Ice Storm walloped central and eastern Canada. It’s just one of many natural disasters featured in the Nature Unleashed exhibition, which includes some unique Canadian content developed by Public Safety Canada. In this blog from Lara Deacon, read about the Canadian Disaster Database and what you can learn from it.

As Canadians, we know from experience that weather can sometimes hit hard. Fifteen years ago, what began as a light freezing drizzle in central and eastern Canada, became the 1998 North American Ice Storm, claiming 28 lives, and injuring another 945 people.

The storm generated an estimated $4.6 billion in damage, plunged entire cities into darkness and forced more than 17 000 people from their homes in the middle of winter.

A fallen tree covered with ice blocks a street.
Pedestrians attempt to navigate a street blocked by downed trees in Montreal. Image: Erin Murray © Public Safety Canada

As bad as it was, people came together to help each other. Neighbours and first responders checked in on elderly and vulnerable individuals, shared resources like generators and hot food, and hosted evacuees. The Canadian Forces joined with utilities crews from across North America to restore power.

When the going gets tough, it’s good to know we can rely on each other. Together, we can be resilient. On the fifteenth anniversary of this natural disaster, we’re reminded that we all need to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature brings our way.

A soldier uses a chain saw to cut a tree that has fallen on ground.
10 January, 1998: Master Corporal Pete Leadbeater, from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, clears trees, hoping to restore power to rural Quebec. Image: © Department of National Defense

My job gives me a unique perspective on emergency preparedness and disasters. I work at Public Safety Canada, the federal department responsible for emergency management.

To help Canadians learn about the kinds of disasters that can occur in their area, my team and I work on an online resource called the Canadian Disaster Database (CDD) that contains information on more than 1000 different events, other than war, that directly affected Canadians since 1900.

The database describes where and when a disaster occurred, the number of injured, evacuated, and fatalities, as well as a rough estimate of the costs. Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and more—the CDD is a great place to learn about them all.

A Hydro tower toppled by ice.
A Hydro transmission tower crumples under the weight of the ice. Image: © Department of National Defense

Part of my job is to keep the database up to date, adding information about new disasters when they happen. So we were really excited to have a special kiosk included in the Nature Unleashed exhibition, where visitors can check out all the features of the database.

A seated woman uses the computer for the Canadian Disaster Database kiosk in the Nature Unleashed exhibition.
Museum President Meg Beckel and John Gazo from Public Safety Canada watch as Parliamentary Secretary Candice Bergen checks out the Canadian Disaster Database kiosk during the opening of Nature Unleashed. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

The database is useful for anyone with an interest in disasters or history, and especially for people who want to learn more about what kinds of emergencies are likely to occur in their area, based on historical trends.

Once people know what the risks are for their area, it is a good idea to get informed about measures that will mitigate the impacts of potential disasters. For instance, people who live in flood-prone areas who take the steps of having backup power for their sump pumps are less likely to have flooding. Simple steps can prevent thousands of dollars in damage, not to mention major inconvenience and possible risks to health and safety.

Top of a utility pole coated with ice.
A utility pole coated with ice. Image: © Department of National Defense

For personal readiness, offers information and tips for preparing for different types of emergencies including avalanches, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, severe storms, tornadoes and wildfires. You can even complete a family emergency plan online and save it for your own files.

The Ice Storm Anniversary and other disasters highlighted in the Nature Unleashed exhibition show us the power of nature. How we prepare for these disasters has a real impact on our ability to cope when they occur so having some useful tools at the click of a mouse is great for all Canadians.