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Firefighters make their way through a flooded street in Ste-Marthe-sur-la-Lac, Que., on May 3, 2019.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The federal government had trouble spending half of the $184-million earmarked over the last few years to prevent flood damage in Canadian communities, an internal evaluation has found.

The National Disaster Mitigation Program’s effectiveness was hindered by scheduling issues that led to delays, the lack of an agreement with Quebec and additional hurdles for First Nations, says the newly released evaluation report.

According to government data, 108 of the 170 major disasters between 2008 and 2018 were floods, causing billions of dollars in damage.

Eighty per cent of Canadian cities are built on flood plains, the report notes. “With climate change, recovery costs for flood disasters will continue to increase.”

The mitigation program, created in 2015, funded 363 projects in 117 communities — mainly flood mapping and structural improvements to lessen the effects of rising waters. About $95-million went to these projects, but another $89-million in earmarked funding was not allocated.

“Administrative requirements and time limits for structural projects were seen as barriers,” the report says.

There was little uptake of the program in the first two years, as timing of the launch did not align with provincial budget cycles, meaning provinces could not provide the needed matching funds.

In addition, provinces and territories had expected a program to address a wider range of hazards, and therefore may have had to modify projects to match the program’s tight focus on flood mitigation. That focus was considered important given the interplay between disasters.

“When there are forest fires, we know that we’re going to get more floods in coming years,” said one person interviewed by the evaluation team.

Since applications had to be made through provincial or territorial governments, First Nation communities “faced additional barriers,” given the federal responsibility for on-reserve communities.

Other problems included “complex and burdensome” administration of the funding program, long forms to complete, and significant staffing turnover in the regions and at Public Safety Canada headquarters during the early stages.

The program managers accepted the evaluation’s recommendations and committed to making changes.

Five years ago, Canada was the only G7 country with no residential insurance coverage for overland flooding, as existing flood maps were outdated, the report notes. The disaster mitigation program was set up, in part, to undertake the necessary assessments and mapping, and the insurance industry has begun to use newly created maps.

“However, at present, affordable overland flood insurance is not available to all affected communities across Canada,” the report says.

Governments, homeowners, the private sector, academia and non-governmental organizations all have roles to play in reducing the burden on governments related to disaster recovery, the reviewers say.

They advocate steps such as:

— preventing land development in flood-prone areas through reliance on the program’s risk assessments and mapping;

— flood-proofing properties with appropriate window wells, downspouts and sump pumps.

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