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Opinion Death, taxes – and flooding: Repeated disasters are the norm, so let’s have a better plan

Glenn McGillivray is managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

As the old saw goes, the only thing that is certain is death and taxes.

But we really should include flooding on the list of absolutes.

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Flooding is the most common hazard in Canada (and most other countries). Almost 40 per cent of the 837 natural disasters listed in the Canadian Disaster Database (1900 to 2019) are floods. What’s more, damage from flooding is the most common expense picked up by provincial/territorial and federal disaster-assistance programs. From 2005 to 2014, floods caused about $12.5-billion in direct damages across the country. As a result, the federal government transferred $3.5-billion to the provinces through its program.

The current flooding situation in parts of Ottawa, Gatineau, Montreal, Fredericton and elsewhere is déjà vu, but it isn’t unexpected.

Just two years ago, many parts of these same places were under several feet of water, a combination of rain and snow/ice melt leading to the inundation of properties located on flood plains.

Much of the problem, it is clear, is with legacy risk – homes and infrastructure built decades ago on what is essentially a part of the river (and rivers are designed to flood, it’s what they do).

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But while we have been down this road before, things appear to be a little different this time, as the messaging from politicians has been noticeably more pointed: Property damage from repeated flooding is not acceptable.

During the flooding in spring 2017, I publicly called for a new paradigm in how we deal with repeat flood disasters.

While the propensity has always been to tidy things up and get life back to normal as quickly as possible, only to get hit again – a dynamic that I dubbed “Flood, Rinse, Repeat” – the discourse, I argued, had to turn to getting those in the immediate flood plain permanently out of harm’s way. Enough is enough.

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Historically, this is achieved through government buyouts of homes that are most at risk (these properties are then converted to parkland or other green space).

There is a fairly long tradition of such buyouts in places such as the Netherlands and the United States.

In this country, though, examples are scarce, with perhaps the most famous flood buyout program now being quite long in the tooth.

Of the less than two handfuls of buyout programs in Canada, perhaps one of the most cited came after Hurricane Hazel ravaged parts of Southern Ontario in October, 1954, killing more than 80 people. The mandatory buyouts that came as a result were implemented in the Toronto area to remove more than 200 properties on flood plains in Long Branch and Etobicoke and turn the neighbourhoods into green space. Now, when these places flood – and flood they do – no private property is damaged and no one dies.

The program is still viewed as a best practice in how to run a mandatory flood buyout program and the initiative contributed to Southern Ontario being seen as one of the leaders in flood management in Canada.

So what makes this round of flooding different?

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An Easter weekend announcement by the Quebec Premier François Legault and a statement by the federal Minister of Public Safety, Ralph Goodale, a few days prior have set a different tone than what existed two years ago.

First, on April 11, Mr. Goodale warned that federal disaster assistance may not be forthcoming if local governments continue to allow construction in flood zones, noting that “at some point, the taxpayer’s patience runs out.”

Second, Mr. Legault announced that disaster assistance for repeat flood properties will be capped at a lifetime $100,000. Once that ceiling is reached, the province will offer to purchase properties, with a $200,000 cap on payments. A step in the right direction.

Premier Blaine Higgs of New Brunswick made similar remarks on Tuesday, foreshadowing increased firmness on the payment of disaster assistance and use of mandatory relocations of homes located in harm’s way.

Two years ago, the tough but necessary message that property owners need to permanently vacate flood plains was uttered aloud by disaster researchers, insurers and others, and got widespread support from taxpayers interested in ending the unsustainable cycle of build, flood, rebuild, flood again.

This time around, the message is being reinforced by the powers that can actually make things happen.

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It appears that a move is afoot.

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