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A man rides his bicycle through a flood on the Don Valley Parkway, a major highway in Toronto, during a heavy rainstorm July 8. (Mark Blinch/REUTERS)
A man rides his bicycle through a flood on the Don Valley Parkway, a major highway in Toronto, during a heavy rainstorm July 8. (Mark Blinch/REUTERS)

Governments ponder how to weather the next big storm Add to ...

Part of Liquid State, an occasional series on our relationship with water.

First comes the deluge. Then the scramble to clean up. And then the hope that a flood-ravaged community won’t see a so-called “once-in-100-years” disaster for another century.

But with scientists, urban planners and insurers warning that freak flooding events that wreaked havoc on communities in Southern Alberta and around Toronto this summer will only grow more common with climate change, municipalities are now beginning to take the expensive, prolonged and sometimes politically unpopular steps to build up ambitious flood prevention infrastructure.

Liquid State

Even with the increased frequency of these events, there’s a debate over whether it’s worth investing in extensive flood prevention programs for natural disasters whose arrival times are unknown. Municipalities have long wish lists of other more straightforward and instantly gratifying infrastructure projects, and aren’t sure if the flood management measures they do take will be enough to ward off extensive damage.

Following the release of an Alberta government plan for compensation and flood mitigation measures, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi expressed concern that municipalities were not consulted, that the province’s flood maps may be out of date and that it’s not clear what next steps homeowners must take.

In an interview, he pointed to the inner city neighbourhood of Inglewood, which saw some flood destruction held at bay by a berm constructed in 2011.

“Is that berm a mitigation effort? Does that mean that homeowners who are building in that neighbourhood do not need to do anything further? And that’s where we really have to work to get some definition. And that will take some time,” he said.

Calgary and Toronto might look to New York City for inspiration on large-scale flood prevention: Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans in June to commit $20-billion on a network of flood walls, levees and bulkheads around New York as well as a the construction of what would be called “Seaport City” to protect Lower Manhattan. While the price tag is enormous, it doesn’t come close to the estimated $50-billion to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, which devastated cities and towns along the northeastern shore of the U.S. last October.

From Vancouver to Calgary to the Greater Toronto Area, municipalities have drafted plans to modify their stormwater management systems, but without funding in place in some cases and prolonged bureaucratic processes, it may be decades (which could bring other episodes of devastating flooding) before these measures become a reality.

COSTS

As history has shown, flood relief efforts are often swift and extensive: Mr. Nenshi won much political capital for his leadership in the weeks that followed his city’s flood in June. But once the water recedes and displaced residents are relocated, municipalities tend to return to normal a little too quickly, says Ken Greenberg, a prominent urban planner and architect in Toronto.

“We don’t sustain that sense of urgency. We slip back into these bureaucratic modes that are not time-sensitive and certainly not pursued as urgent agendas.”

For politicians, there is a greater incentive to bring the heroics in the form of flood relief action rather than prevention planning, according to research from political scientists at Stanford University and Loyola Marymount University. A 2009 study of American cities found that even though $1 spent on preparedness was worth $15 in mitigated damage, voters rewarded politicians for effectively leading relief efforts but “offered scant incentives to presidents to pursue cost-effective preparedness spending.”

Mr. Nenshi recently told the Globe that in his city, flood prevention “has never seemed to be a hugely sexy thing, particularly among the other orders of government.” The 103,000 people evacuated during June’s flood (nearly one-tenth of the city’s population) have now pushed it to the top of the municipal priority list.

The federal government opened the door to targeted funding for disaster mitigation infrastructure in 2007, and funds have been earmarked for it in every budget since then. But municipalities must apply for funds, and they only cover a small portion of stormwater management costs.

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