The June floods that devastated communities throughout Alberta not only changed the lives of thousands of people, it permanently altered the place they call home.
“It’s changed the character of our province,” Premier Alison Redford said in an interview on Thursday.
The worst natural disaster in the area’s history shook Alberta to its core. And the Premier cautions anyone from thinking the floods were simply a moment in time and that everything will soon revert to normal. It will not. Ms. Redford believes the floods will have ripple effects into the future.
“In terms of how we think about each other, how we think about community, what our long-term infrastructure planning is around drought and irrigation, because, fundamentally, the rivers have changed, the physical geography of the province has changed, and that does have long-term implications.”
One hundred days since the crisis, Alberta is still deep in recovery mode. Nearly 2,700 families remain out of their homes of the nearly 100,000 originally displaced. This week, the province revised the estimated total of the damage upwards to $6-billion. The number is almost certain to rise. And while the province will not be on the hook for the entire amount, its share will be in the billions.
The financial hit could not come at a worse time for Ms. Redford’s government, which has overseen the build-up of debt in Alberta for the first time in years, primarily due to a slump in oil revenues. Meantime, the energy market outlook for the province has never appeared more uncertain.
The extent of destruction left by the floods is still being assessed. It is known, however, that many families in the 30 communities affected lost everything. The government has poured $50-million into mental health services to deal with the fallout, which has included a spike in cases of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many of the buildings that were ruined in June were rental apartments, resulting in misery and hardship for thousands. On Thursday, it was announced that Alberta recently cracked the four million mark in population, with more than 42,000 people pouring into the province in the past three months alone. Many of those would almost certainly be looking to rent.
It may take years to rebuild the rental pool.
The Premier conceded that she cannot offer Albertans the one thing they crave most right now: a promise they will be protected from future flooding. “We can never prevent anyone’s house from ever being flooded again,” she said.
Ms. Redford said the government will adopt prevention measures that would at least give people the confidence that they are better protected. Those measures will include updated flood mapping to recognize the new, post-flood contours of many rivers, as well as more technologically effective and efficient community mitigation projects such as holding reservoirs.
Of all the moves Ms. Redford made in the days after the flood, none has been more controversial than her decision to pay the uninsurable damages incurred by Albertans. Beyond that, she also offered to buy out anyone who owns a home in a dangerous floodway. Together, the promises could cost taxpayers billions.
“I don’t regret it at all,” the Premier said. “We had people whose lives were destroyed by the flood, whose homes were destroyed. There were many families at risk.”
Ms. Redford told me that the total number of homes the province buys – it is offering only the assessed value –will likely be less than 200, not thousands, as some have suggested. She insists it will not put the government in a financial hole for years.
We’ll see about that. Still, it seems unfair to target a leader for responding to the needs of her people in the most humane of ways possible. One hundred days out, most of what Ms. Redford and her government have done in response to this tragedy has been spot on. But plenty of tough decisions await.