Jason Thistlethwaite is an assistant professor in the University of Waterloo's school of environment, enterprise and development. Shawna Peddle is executive director of Partners for Action at the University of Waterloo.
It's a nightmare scenario we've seen play out all too frequently in communities across Canada over the past few weeks. You come home after a nasty storm to a flooded basement, destroyed property, disrupted lives and months of uncertainty and distress. You instinctively call the insurance company. But chances are they recite a familiar refrain: "We're sorry, but your insurance doesn't cover flood damage."
You're not alone. Canadians pay almost $600-million out of pocket annually for flood damage, making it the most common and expensive natural hazard. These costs have been increasing since the 1990s. And extreme weather fuelled by a changing climate means these costs are only going up, leaving more and more Canadians, well, sinking financially.
Why aren't we protected?
Canadian homeowners are in the dark about flood risk. Insurers, on the other hand, know where the risks lie – and that it's bad business to offer coverage in those areas. Governments allow development in locations with a history of flooding, without notifying homeowners, and even promote that development by using taxpayer dollars to rebuild.
How do we get out of this mess?
The first step is to be aware that your home is at risk of flooding so you can protect yourself. According to our survey of 2,300 Canadians living in high-risk areas, 75 per cent had no idea their property was vulnerable to flooding and only 21 per cent thought the risk would increase over the next 25 years.
This explains why less than 30 per cent of us protect our homes with sump pumps, water-resistant materials in basements, landscape grading and rain barrels.
In addition, half of Canadians say they won't consider purchasing overland flood insurance that would help them recover from flood damage, primarily because they don't consider themselves to be at risk.
This lack of flood-risk awareness – and inaction to protect property – is worrying.
Just because there was no flood last year does not mean there won't be a flood next year. In fact, on average, everyone's risk is increasing every year. Increasing population density, aging infrastructure and more extreme storms are all combining to make rainfall unmanageable, soaking our basements and our pocketbooks.
Consider, for example, that the many homeowners we surveyed who had experienced flood damage reported that they paid for 75 per cent of the repairs. And some provincial governments are no longer willing to provide disaster assistance at all now that flood insurance is available.
In British Columbia, for example, a flooded homeowner can expect to receive as much as 80 per cent of a claim to a maximum of $300,000, which is less than half the average home price in the province.
Even if you are lucky to qualify for insurance, climate change is increasing costs in many areas of the country, threatening affordability.
If we don't address this protection gap soon, not only will homes be under water, but mortgage markets as well. Victims are often forced to take on debt that exceeds the resale value of homes in neighbourhoods with the stigma of being flood-prone. More than 1.8 million households currently live in such areas, according to the insurance industry. The disproportionate impact on lower-income households is all the more reason for change.
So if that call to your insurance company isn't the right one, maybe a call to your elected representative is.
Canadians support policy changes that could substantially improve flood-risk awareness and the financial risk to future home buyers. More than 90 per cent of homeowners agree that flood maps should be made publicly available, that property owners should be notified if their home is located in a flood-risk area and that sellers should be required to disclose flood risk.
Homeowners need clear information on what the government expects of us and what could happen if a flood occurs or if we are uninsured. Information is the first step in empowering Canadians to make the right decisions on how to protect their property and families.
Our survey revealed that Canadians want to have their voices heard on flood risk. It's time for the government to listen.
Daniel Henstra and Daniel Scott, based out of the University of Waterloo, also contributed to this article.