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The Globe and Mail

One year after Alberta's floods, an altered landscape for insurers

A displaced boat sits on the front lawn of a home in High River’s Wallaceville neighbourhood damaged by the massive flood in High River during a media tour of the city June 25, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Canadian insurance companies have made extensive changes to home insurance coverage in the year since massive flooding devastated thousands of homes, businesses and public spaces in southern Alberta. And as the water rises again, the industry says there is still much more to be done to protect against the damage of climate change.

Last June's devastation in the province caused a chain reaction of modifications in the property insurance landscape, from increased premiums and lower deductibles to changes in the extent of coverage and investments in consumer education. Now, the industry is calling on customers and governments to adapt to more frequent weather disasters.

Insurers say Canada needs to improve its flood mapping, invest in new infrastructure and update its building codes to lessen the impact of future storms on both businesses and homeowners.

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"Nobody is immune from floodwaters," said Jeff Burke, chief executive officer of Western Financial Group, a property and casualty insurer headquartered in High River, Alta. Mr. Burke and his employees have been watching the weather with trepidation ahead of the anniversary. The company has yet to move back into its downtown office, which was badly damaged in the flood. "There's a lot of talk going on about rates, but the rate increases and the changes in coverage we've seen are not only resulting from the flood, but also the more frequent and severe climate change that is reality now," he said.

Flooding is Canada's most common weather hazard, and last year's floods in southern Alberta resulted in $1.72-billion in insurance claims paid, according to data collected by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Combined with the $943-million in payouts insurers paid to cover damages from the July flooding in Toronto last summer, the insurance industry sustained the highest level of losses from catastrophic events in Canadian history at about $3.4-billion.

Insurers responded by adjusting their property coverage. Intact Financial Corp., the country's largest property and casualty insurer, raised rates by as much as 20 per cent, increased deductible amounts and provided financial incentives for customers willing to take preventative measures to limit possible damages. The company also capped the coverage it provides for sewer backup damages, and customers can now purchase different levels of coverage depending on their needs.

Mr. Burke says the changes the industry has made don't make up for the need for the federal government to get involved in a national flood insurance program, and he called on insurers to work with government to develop a national flood insurance program. "We're the only G7 country that doesn't have a program like that. I think it's part of a prevention plan, and part of an awareness plan," he said.

Insurer Aviva Canada wants to see provinces and municipalities involved in updating infrastructure in cities and making changes to residential mapping. "Government actions are needed to restrict residential developments in flood-sensitive areas, incentives for homeowners to take direct steps to prepare for major flood events and investments in proven infrastructure loss-reduction efforts," said Glenn Cooper, spokesman for Aviva. The company paid more than $140-million on 1,700 claims following the flooding – the largest single claim event in its history.

Insurers all say the country needs better flood mapping as weather-related catastrophes that used to happen once in 100 years are now happening once in 40. Large reinsurance companies, which take on risk from insurance companies, are investing heavily in satellite mapping and geocoding, which can be used to estimate both the number of claims in an area and the need for adjusters. As computer processing power and imaging technology improves, insurers are better able to assess risk.

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"We will develop flood mapping to the point where you can go on a GPS and say 'Here's a street of 20 houses – these five will flood and these 15 won't,'" said Stephen Hester, global chief executive of RSA Insurance, which has a large Canadian business.

Mr. Hester said RSA is getting more selective in the policies it is willing to underwrite. "If there are insurance risks very vulnerable to weather, then they're either going to be priced higher, or people like us are going to do less of it," he said.

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