As the flood waters recede, the hard work is only beginning. Flood victims face years of distress and anxiety, replacing damaged property, fighting the government and insurers for compensation, and processing the loss of irreplaceable family pictures and heirlooms. But the most significant burden for many will be the recognition that their home is no longer safe.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We are calling on governments at all levels to rethink flood management in Canada.
First, tell Canadians they are at risk from flooding.
Our recent survey of 2,300 Canadians living in high flood risk areas showed 94 per cent do not know their property has such a designation. Governments can’t expect Canadians to protect their properties if they don’t know they are at risk.
The government of Canada should fund the development of flood risk maps. The last major effort was in the 1970s. Imagine the benefits that modern geospatial, radar and satellite mapping systems could bring to improving the awareness of Canadians about the most costly and common hazard. In many European countries, for example, homeowners can search a public database to know their property’s flood risk. New maps should also identify urban areas at a high risk flooding due to heavy rainfall and stormwater runoff, since this is a much costlier source of damage than riverine flooding.
Second, enforce land-use planning that respects flood risk.
All provinces have regulations to restrict development in flood zones. But these are typically based on outdated maps that don’t account for additional risk from a changing climate. Municipal governments are expected to enforce the regulations, but are under immense pressure to develop land due to their dependence on property taxes. Flood zones along rivers and coastlines are some of the most picturesque areas, so there is inevitable interest from developers to build neighbourhoods on these lands. But to prevent future flood losses, we need better monitoring and enforcement of regulations to stop new property development (residential and commercial) in areas with high flood risk.
Third, ensure flood insurance is affordable in high risk areas.
Absolute protection from flood damage is impossible, particularly for established neighbourhoods in flood zones. Even with dams and dikes built to withstand the next big flood, these defences aren’t always up to the job, especially given that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of flooding. They are also very expensive to maintain and replace.
Flood insurance should be available in the event our defences fail. Flood insurance reduces the burden on government disaster assistance, and high premiums discourage living in risky areas. Insurance costs also encourage property owners to protect their homes in exchange for lower premiums. As in other G7 countries, Canada’s federal government could use the savings from flood disaster assistance to subsidize premiums for those in high risk zones who lack the capacity to pay.
Finally, offer buyouts for property owners facing the highest risk.
The legacy of poor development decisions in some areas cannot be undone without mandatory buyouts. After the 2013 floods in Alberta, the local government in the town of High River told 122 families they would face a mandatory buyout. Although some homeowners fought the program, they ultimately accepted that putting distance between their families and the river is the most effective form of flood risk management.
Canadians pay $600 million out of pocket for flooding every year. Population growth, more frequent extreme storms and aging infrastructure are going to increase this financial strain. If we don’t act before the next flood, many more homes will be underwater, and so could mortgage markets in many parts of the country.
This article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette.