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Overflowing rivers are a common hazard in this part of Alberta, and the local government has spent years building infrastructure to combat them. But wildfires, escalating costs and an oil patch slump left them unfinished when disaster hit in April. What will happen when the next deluge comes?

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Water surrounds the River City Centre mall in Fort McMurray's Lower Townsite on April 28, after an ice jam caused some of the Alberta town's worst flooding in decades.Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Dan Sorensen’s two businesses in Fort McMurray – a camera store in a downtown mall and a sign shop a few blocks away – were already suffering under pandemic restrictions when floodwaters started rushing through town late last month.

Mr. Sorensen had been optimistic that he could survive the economic effects of COVID-19. He’s not so sure about the flood, which forced more than 10,000 people to flee under evacuation orders and caused significant damage to local homes and businesses. “We knew [the pandemic] would at least come to an end, but unfortunately we didn’t quite make it to that point and now we’re not sure what to do,” said Mr. Sorensen, who estimates the damage at the camera store alone to be more than $500,000.

Mr. Sorensen’s businesses were among the victims of the worst flooding Fort McMurray has seen in decades – a 1-in-100-year disaster caused when ice jammed the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers and sent water levels soaring. According to an early municipal estimate, 1,230 buildings were affected.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, is currently building up its flood defences with a $290-million system of berms, elevated roads and other infrastructure that will wall off much of the town, but it has faced years of delays, many related to costs.

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Flood-protection systems can be extremely expensive, which forces governments across the country to weigh the cost of building high-level protection against the potential damage if they don’t. That calculation often favours short-term savings over protecting against a theoretical disaster that can seem like a distant possibility.

In Fort McMurray, an initial decision to proceed at a lower standard forced the municipality to eventually redraw those plans, further delaying the project’s completion while that distant possibility became a reality this year.

Karl-Erich Lindenschmidt, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security who specializes in river ice, said even small adjustments to the height of berm systems can increase costs considerably. Every extra metre in height requires more material over the entire height of the berm, as well as other design changes. “For every increment that you increase your height, your costs go up exponentially,” he said. “You have to agree on some kind of a level just to make the whole thing cost-affordable.”

A series of decisions, delays and unfortunate events over the past decade meant that the system was not in place to save Fort McMurray this year, despite initial plans to have the project finished by 2017. Most of it is expected to be finished at the end of next year, after another flood season will have come and gone.

The missed opportunity in Fort McMurray serves as a warning to other vulnerable cities planning to erect hard flood defences. A prime example: Calgary’s ambitious infrastructure plan, known as the Springbank reservoir, has also fallen behind schedule. A major risk of such projects, which seem so appealing after catastrophic flooding, is that they often miss promised timelines, leaving people exposed to further flooding.

The two rivers that surround Fort McMurray’s downtown neighbourhood, known as the Lower Townsite, flooded after a 25-kilometre ice jam clogged the Athabasca downstream. These types of ice-jam floods are a common threat in the region.

The municipality examined options for flood protection as it sought to revitalize its downtown at a time when the nearby oil sands were booming and Fort McMurray expected its population to balloon to 150,000 in the coming years.

The initial plans for a flood-mitigation system included a new arterial roadway (now called Clearwater Drive) that would be elevated to do double duty as a dike. In 2007, the municipality approved building flood defences to an elevation of 248.5 metres above sea level – the level of an estimated 1-in-40-year flood – with a commitment to the province to complete construction by 2017. By building defences to such a low elevation, however, officials understood that flooding hazards would remain a fact of life for Fort Mac’s residents. The 1-in-40-year standard wouldn’t have been sufficient to hold back this year’s floods, for instance. Cost seems to have been the main consideration.

The municipality was compelled to rethink its approach after extensive flooding ravaged Alberta in 2013. Stung by the high recovery costs, the provincial government encouraged Albertans to relocate from floodways and enacted legislation that required Fort McMurray’s defences be built to 250 metres above sea level – the level of a 1-in-100-year flood. In 2015, the municipality requested a one-year deferral from the province for its flood defences and halted construction while it explored new options. The municipality considered demountable walls that could be erected every spring to reach the desired height; that idea was discarded once officials realized how heavy the walls would have to be to withstand ice jams.

Tough times led to further delays. Crude oil prices began falling in 2014, and oil sands operators responded by cutting costs and laying off employees. In early 2015, the municipality reviewed capital projects, with a view to “identifying projects that could be cancelled, phased, deferred or reduced in scope.” Flooding-mitigation projects were among those deferred.

The municipality knew it was rolling the dice, but liked the odds. “There is about a three-per-cent probability of a 1:100-year flood in the next three years and about a four-per-cent probability of a 1:100-year flood in the next four years,” one 2015 municipal report noted, “illustrating there is only a marginal incremental risk in deferring the program for one additional year.”

The 2016 wildfires, which devastated the town and kept people out of Fort McMurray for months, caused yet another delay. Most of the construction season was a writeoff.

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Ice lies next to an elevated segment of Clearwater Drive, part of Fort McMurray's incomplete network of flood defences.Government of Alberta/Government of Alberta

The town’s limited defences came up in telephone town halls held after the recent flooding, where several residents asked about flood protection and why the Lower Townsite still flooded even after the work on Clearwater Drive.

Matthew Hough, deputy chief administrative officer for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, explained to the callers that the project will be more than half finished by the end of this year, pointing to large mounds of earth piled at spots in the Lower Townsite as evidence that work is continuing apace.

Mr. Hough said in an interview that the planned berm system would have been high enough to prevent this year’s flooding, which makes him confident that the planned system is sufficient. “That’s small solace to those that are still not back in their homes after the flood, but I do hope that everyone can take some comfort in the fact that we are continuing to work away at this,” he said.

Money is another issue that could either speed up or add new delays to the project. The municipality continues to operate in a climate of austerity: announced in November, its 2020 budget was nearly 5 per cent lower than the previous year.

Wood Buffalo has already received millions through infrastructure and disaster-preparedness programs, most recently $6.6-million from the provincial government last year. But it needs more.

Mr. Hough, who wasn’t working in Fort McMurray during the earlier delays in the project, noted that the municipality has put in a request for $78-million in additional funding from the province and the federal government. It hasn’t received an answer.

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Mayor Don Scott and councillor Krista Balsom of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo help a sandbagging crew protect Fort McMurray's Heritage Village.Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Don Scott, who has been the mayor of Wood Buffalo since 2017, also largely after the most significant delays, said that without funding from higher levels of government, the municipality would be left with only bad options: raise taxes, cut services, or delay the berms even longer.

“That’s something that’s completely unacceptable," he said of the potential for further delays.

Mr. Scott said he’s spoken to provincial and federal leaders in the wake of this year’s flooding and he’s optimistic. He said Fort McMurray will only be able to have a vibrant downtown if residents and businesses feel safe.

“The sooner we get funding commitments from other levels of government, the sooner we’re gonna get the project moving forward," he said. “The challenges have taken a long time, there are a lot of reasons. But we’re the ones who need to address it and get it done.”

Infrastructure Canada spokeswoman Jen Powroz said in an e-mail that it’s up to provinces to identify projects as priorities for federal infrastructure money but that the department wasn’t aware of a request for more funding.

Hadyn Place, press secretary for the provincial Infrastructure Minister, couldn’t comment on the most recent request for funding.

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Fort McMurray homeowners Cora and Alec Dion indicate how high the water got in their basement, about five feet, on May 8, after the waters receded. This was the second time they had to evacuate their home after the Horse River wildfire of 2016.Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

There’s also the issue of building in a flood plain in the first place, a problem that has plagued other flood-prone communities in Alberta, such as High River, Drumheller and parts of Calgary that flooded in 2013.

In Fort McMurray, the municipality considered buying out residents of the highly vulnerable Ptarmigan Court trailer park whose homes had been destroyed by the 2016 wildfire, but decided against doing so. “Many residents want to rebuild,” one report noted, “and this would help repair the social fabric.” Ptarmigan Court flooded again this year.

To encourage the rebuilding of flood-prone neighbourhoods like Waterways after the wildfire, the municipality even repealed a flood-proofing bylaw. “This is an example of where the need for timely recovery may have been prioritized over the principle of building back better,” observed a 2017 report by KPMG, the large global consultancy. Waterways also flooded in April.

Mr. Sorensen, the Fort McMurray business owner, said that when it’s finished, the flood-mitigation system could mean the difference between Fort McMurray’s downtown rebuilding or becoming a “ghost town.”

“Even though the chances are slim to be as bad as it was, it’s just always a potential, and going through that again would be too much for anybody,” Mr. Sorensen said. “Having that berm and having that stuff done will have more value than you can imagine.”

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Floodwaters surround homes in the Draper Road subdivision on April 28.Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

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