Flood. Rinse. Repeat: The costly cycle that must end

By Glenn McGillivray

This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail on 7 May 2017.

Once again, homes located alongside a Canadian river have flooded, affected homeowners are shocked, the local government is wringing its hands, the respective provincial government is ramping up to provide taxpayer-funded disaster assistance and the feds are deploying the Armed Forces.

In Canada, it is the plot of the movie Groundhog Day, or the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

At least in the movie, Bill Murray’s character learns from his mistakes. This can’t seem to be said of how we manage flood in this country.

In recent years, we have seen the cycle played out in such places as the Richelieu Valley after the spring 2011 flooding, and southern Alberta after the June 2013 deluge.

First, a homeowner locates next to the river, oftentimes because of the view (meaning a personal choice is being made). Many of these homes are of high value.

Then the snow melts, the ice jams or the rain falls and the flood comes. Often, as is the case now, the rain is characterized by the media as being incredible, far outside the norm. Then a scientific or engineering analysis later shows that what happened was not very exceptional.

These events are not caused by the rain, they are caused by poor land-use decisions, among other public-policy foibles. This is what is meant when some say there are no such things as natural catastrophes, only man-made disasters.

Finally, the province steps in with disaster assistance then seeks reimbursement from the federal government through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements. In any case, whether provincial or federal, taxpayers are left holding the bag.

In some instances, attempts are made to prevent or lessen the risk of a recurrence through the construction of mitigation infrastructure, like dams, levees, bypasses and the like. These can have the unintended and surprising result of angering property owners (many homeowners in High River, Alta. were upset when a three-metre berm constructed after the June 2013 flood “ruined their view”).

In some cases, property buyouts for high-risk homes are offered. Back in the day, after Hurricane Hazel ravaged parts of Southern Ontario, killing more than 80 people, homeowners on flood plains were bought out at fair market value and their neighbourhoods were converted into parkland. Today, these parks flood from time to time, but 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.

The voluntary buyouts offered by the Alberta government after the 2013 event, conversely, are viewed by many as a failure. Only 94 homeowners of a possible 254 accepted the offer.

With all this being said, buyout/relocation programs are a rarity. We normally just put things back the way they were and hope that the event never happens again. But just as the boreal forest is “designed to burn,” rivers are designed to flood; it’s what they do.

Sometimes the powers that be give us the chance not to repeat the mistakes from the past, but we seldom take them up on the offer, then it’s deja vu all over again.

So what is the root of the problem? Though complex problems have complex causes and complex solutions, one of the causes is that the party making the initial decision to allow construction (usually the local government) is not the party left holding the bag when the flood comes.

Just as homeowners have skin in the game through insurance deductibles and other measures, local governments need a financial disincentive to act in a risky manner. At present, municipalities face far more upside risk than downside risk when it comes to approving building in high-risk hazard zones. When the bailout comes from elsewhere, there is no incentive to make the right decision – the lure of an increased tax base and the desire not to anger local voters is all too great.

Reducing natural disaster losses in Canada means breaking the cycle – taking a link out of the chain of events that leads to losses.

Local governments eager for growth and the tax revenue that goes with it need to hold some significant portion of the downside risk in order to give them pause for thought. Enough, at least, so they may think twice about making risky decisions that put people and property directly at risk.

To borrow the title of another movie, something’s gotta give.

Glenn is the Managing Director, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.