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A man carries a bag of his belongings as he walks along a flooded road, Monday May 8, 2017 in Gatineau, Que.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The majority of Canadian homeowners aren't insured for flooding and could be left footing at least part of the bill after heavy rains in several areas across the country, experts say.

Craig Stewart, vice-president of federal affairs for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, estimates that only 10 to 15 per cent of Canadians have so-called "overland flood insurance," which is offered as an add-on to insurance policies.

Stewart says that's because it's a fairly new product that wasn't available prior to 2013, when severe flooding hit Toronto and Alberta.

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"That was primarily because we did not have flood risk maps developed for the whole country," Stewart says.

"The insurance industry needs to be able to quantify the risks so they can assess which premiums to charge which people. Up until then there was simply no risk mapping done to be able to support such policies."

Heavy rains left several communities in Quebec and Ontario struggling with rising floodwaters over the weekend, while parts of New Brunswick and British Columbia also faced flooding.

Insurers started working on the overland flood insurance add-on after the 2013 incidents, but it took time to roll the policies out. Stewart says the product has been available since late 2015.

The low uptake is likely due to the fact that most Canadians only interact with their insurance broker when the time comes to renew their policy, Stewart says.

"Most people are not aware that overland flood insurance is available," Stewart says. "Therefore, unless they have been directly in a conversation with their broker or their agent at the time of renewal over the past year, they likely won't have it."

Stewart says most homeowners grappling with flood damage will be left relying on government assistance, which typically covers less than insurance.

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"Insurance is meant to make you whole," Stewart says.

That's in contrast to government assistance, which will help compensate homeowners for their losses, but typically focuses on core essentials.

Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo, says many Canadians lack the information they need about flood risk.

For example, many Canadians think fire poses the biggest threat to their homes, when in fact flood damage is more common, Thistlethwaite says.

Thistlethwaite co-authored a study last year that surveyed 2,300 Canadians who live in high-risk flood areas. The majority of those polled — 70 per cent — said they had not been contacted by an insurance company about newly available overland flood insurance, he said.

The survey also indicated confusion on the part of respondents about what is and isn't covered by insurance policies. The majority of those surveyed thought overland flooding was already covered by default under insurance policies, Thistlethwaite said.

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He said governments should do more to help homeowners get the information they need to protect themselves from future floods.

"We're just looking at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to flooding because climate change is going to make the problem much worse in the future."

Residents close to Montreal and along the flooded Ottawa River talk about the impact of the rising water levels on their homes.
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