The impact of natural disaster on community engagement and connection in Goderich, Ontario.

Author:Laycock, Katherine


The community of Goderich, Ontario, devastated by a severe tornado on August 21, 2011, was the focus of this study. Examining the community's capacities and vulnerabilities at different stages aided in the determination of the sustainable effects of natural disaster on community engagement and connection. Results demonstrated a high degree of community resilience and awareness regarding capabilities, obstacles, and the direction of reconstruction efforts. Community engagement was associated with respondents' education, age, and personal measures of satisfaction during specific disaster timeframes. Beyond the extreme trauma resulting from the tornado, analysis definitively revealed it also has the potential to strengthen community bonds and serve as impetus for positive planning and development. However, since heightened civic engagement was only measured in the immediate aftermath of disaster, it is unclear whether disaster provides enough motivation to encourage sustainable community engagement over time.

Keywords: community engagement, disaster potential, capacity, vulnerability


La communaute de Goderich, Ontario, frappee par une violente tornade le 21 aout 2011, etait l'objectif de cette etude. Lexamen des capacites et des vulnerabilites de la communaute a difierents stades a aide a determiner les effets durable de la catastrophe naturelle sur lengagement et lien communautaire. Les resultats ont demontre un degre eleve de resilience et de sensibilisation communautaire aux capacites, aux obstacles, et a l'orientation des efforts de reconstruction. Lengagement communautaire a ete associee a leducation, l'age, et les mesures personnelles de satisfaction du repondant au cours de certaines periodes de catastrophe specifiques. Au-dela du traumatisme extreme resultant de la tornade, les analyses ont montre de facon incontestable quelle est egalement a meme de renforcer les liens communautaires et de servir d'impulsion a la planification positive et au developpement. Cependant, comme lengagement civique accru a ete mesurer settlement dans les consequences immediates de la catastrophe, c est difficile a dire si une catastrophe apporte suffisamment de motivation pour encourager un engagement communautaire durable pendant une periode de temps.

Mots cles: engagement communautaire, catastrophe potentielle, capacite, vulnerabilite Introduction


If Henstra and McBean (2005) are correct in predicting that the intensity of natural disasters in Canada will increase substantially in the future, appropriately managing the aftermath of erratic, natural phenomena will be even more important as their frequency rises.

Beyond extreme physical consequences, disasters affect social structures, prompting Weichselgartner's (2001, 86) postulation that "disaster itself occurs within society and not within nature." Does the destructive potential of disaster adversely affect community cohesion or does disaster motivate community engagement and a communal sense of connection, ultimately fortifying social networks? The concept of community engagement is subjective and makes it difficult to precisely define. For this study, community engagement concerns individual or group contributions to unpaid community activities that serve sole or group interests. Alternatively, community connection relates to the emotional bonds between individuals and a community. The fact that engaged communities more easily influence decision-making processes and strategies that affect social situations and issues (Abraham et al. n.d.) led to a desire to explore some of the potential social ramifications of disaster. This research tests the hypothesis that natural disaster will encourage increased and sustained community engagement and connection. The community of Goderich, still re-establishing itself from a recent tornado, was the study population for this investigation.


The Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis (CVA) framework provided a suitable guide for this research because of its flexibility in capturing a range of stressors beyond the physical ramifications of disaster. CVA features three investigative categories--physical, social, and motivational--as it explores factors surrounding the capacities and vulnerabilities of study populations (Twigg 2001).

Since CVA incorporates social consequences into its model, it is useful for a study of community engagement and connection. The broad view of capacities as community strengths and vulnerabilities as weaknesses resulting from deficiencies or inadequate utilization of capacities was employed as a point of reference (Filson 2012).

It is imperative to interpret CVA results with an awareness of potential and/or inherent variations that may be noted in the capacities and vulnerabilities of developed and developing societies. In particular, physical and societal factors may necessarily skew some of the results obtained using a CVA model. Essentially, communities situated in nations with abundant physical capacity and social capital may recover more rapidly from encounters with disaster than communities located in areas with less developed social networks or fewer physical capacities. The latter may even find its vulnerabilities are compounded after disaster. Conversely, the degree of societal development is less a factor when considering the motivational aspects of CVA since motivation is more a manifestation of community attitudes and levels of determination in the face of stressors. From this, vulnerabilities could be augmented in situations where less motivation or perseverance exists and capacities could demonstrate greater community motivation and determination.


Goderich is situated along Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario. Recognizing the community's capacities and vulnerabilities prior to the tornado is essential since the introduction of unexpected stressors can distort preexisting situations (Bolin and Stanford 1998). As well, some capacities and vulnerabilities are more perceptible after disaster since trauma can intensify strengths or accentuate deficiencies (Weichselgartner 2001), making CVA appropriate for this study.

With respect to CVA's physical, social, and motivational categories, pre-disaster Goderich mirrored the attributes of many small towns in the province and nation and while disaster may magnify some of these, it does not alter their reality (Cutter and Emrich 2006). Physically, vulnerability was predominantly manifest in economic concerns resulting from core area business declines and closures of several industrial operations in recent years (Lynn 2012, Part Three). Socially, the ensuing loss of integral employment and income for hundreds was a substantial social concern for this aging population. Motivationally, the community attitude did not overtly reflect economic hardships as members generally expressed affinity for the town and a sense of social cohesion by engaging in diverse forms of social enterprise. The town's physical capacities are abundant. Goderich's location on Lake Huron launched shipping, mining, and tourism industries. The town preserves heritage buildings, urban parklands, and unique physical features, such as its harbour front. Continual municipal improvement plans and attempts to swiftly address issues as they arise are traits of the community's adaptive resilience, proactive leadership, and community cooperation.

On August 21, 2011, the community was hit by an F3 tornado. The disaster interrupted hydro, telephone, and natural gas service for about 10 days. Turbulent winds of 250-300 km/hr emerged off the lake and tore through the community for 20 km, annihilating residential areas and the historic business core, known as the square (Environment Canada 2011). A state of emergency was immediately issued. In the disaster's wake was one fatality, around 40 injuries, hundreds of displaced people, over $100 million in commercial and residential building damages, and devastation to mature landscapes (Environment Canada, Tornado Goderich 2011).

In Canada, tornadoes materialize predominately in southwest Ontario and southeast Manitoba. Annually, they account for about 20 injuries and two deaths (Cao and Cai 2011, 27) highlighting the personal toll in Goderich. Almost 75% of tornadoes occurring in southern Ontario are ranked F0 or F1 according to the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Intensity Scale (F-scale) (1) (Banik, Hong, and Kopp 2008,1385). The F3 tornado that decimated Goderich is a rarity, severe enough to belong to a mere 6% of all documented tornadoes in Canada (Environment Canada 2007).

As expected, physical and social vulnerabilities escalated in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Entire community blocks were affected; on one street alone 10 homes were completely destroyed (Remembering the Goderich Tornado 2012) and the downtown core obliterated. About 170 businesses sustained significant damage including one of the town's major employers, Sifto salt mine, the site of the lone tornado victim (Remembering the Goderich Tornado 2012). Hundreds instantly found themselves without incomes (Lynn 2012, Video Series Part Two). A point clearly witnessed in Goderich was the fact that disaster recovery can inadvertently "overwhelm local resources and introduce expectations that are unrealistic and unattainable" (Anderson and Woodrow 1989, 52). Building code issues, safety regulations, and insufficient local contractors challenged immediate access to damaged structures and hampered proactive debris clean-up, making it apparent that restoration...

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