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The Globe and Mail

Putting a price on ‘acts of God’

As residents of Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec try to dig out, dry out and rebuild after devastating fires and record-breaking floods, their governments and insurance companies will be faced with putting a price on what's normally considered an act of god.

It's a bizarre accounting task carried out by insurance companies and government specialists, a clinical assignation of monetary value that will attempt to assess not just physical damage – but professional and emotional. In cases where residents are considering suing governments, a judge would have to determine whether a government violated its duty of care – or whether steps taken were the result of policy decisions and therefore exempt.

Some displaced Slave Lake residents got a first chance to get a glimpse of their fire-scorched community Monday, when five buses from evacuation centres in Athabasca, Edmonton and Westlock took them on a tour of what's become a ghost town after wildfires reduced a third of the town's buildings to charred rubble.

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They couldn't get off. They couldn't stop. The buses stuck to a previously set route through town.

"People understand, now, why they haven't been able to go home," said Sandi Misselbrook, chair of the NGO Council of Alberta. "They've seen the devastation – the open pipes, the various safety issues – that you honestly don't understand until you see it."

There's still no plan in place for long-term compensation and who will shoulder the costs to rebuild, said government spokeswoman Donna Babchishin – she said crews are too busy dealing with trying to return essential services to Slave Lake and make the town community safe enough for residents to return. The province has already pledged $50-million in immediate emergency funding, $6-million of which was distributed over the weekend in chunks of $1,250 per adult, $500 a child.

In Slave Lake residents' case, however, their damage is likely covered by insurance. The same isn't true of flood-hit homes in Manitoba and Quebec: Most insurance companies don't include damage from overland floods, says Insurance Bureau of Canada spokesman Mark Klein.

In the face of record-setting water levels on Quebec's Richelieu River – which have flooded more than 3,000 homes and displaced more than 1,000 evacuees – the Quebec government has cut 1,900 cheques to waterlogged residents. That adds up to more than $4-million on top of the $1.6-million it has spent on other flood-prevention and mitigation measures.

But that number's set to go far higher, says Yvan Leroux, regional director of civil security for the province's Eastern Townships: These cheques are only the first of what's likely to be many more. Each claim for household damage is capped at $150,000, he said; the province is covering property damage, but not costs such as income loss.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Manitoba residents waterlogged by a purposeful flood will find out how the government plans to compensate them.

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Premier Greg Selinger has argued the unprecedented move to punch a hole in a dike at Hoop and Holler Bend, about 90 kilometres west of Winnipeg, was justified in the interests of staving off a massive, uncontrolled breach of dikes strained by the Assiniboine River, which is in the throes of once-in-three-centuries flooding.

Under normal circumstances, the provincial and federal governments contribute to a disaster financial-assistance fund that covers everything from property damage to emergency measures and cleanup costs. It doesn't include losses such as foregone income or damage to "non-primary dwellings" such as cottages.

But Mr. Selinger has said those affected by the purposeful flood will get compensation "above and beyond the disaster assistance already in place."

What the province doesn't have yet is buy-in from the federal government, despite requests to that effect from the Premier during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit. "Discussions are ongoing" on who will pay for what, a provincial spokeswoman said Monday.

Danny Kreklewich, for one, isn't so sure.

The province's controlled breach was a weird kind of housewarming present for the lawyer, his wife and their two-year-old twins – they have yet to finish work on their house, less than 550 metres away from the cut at Hoop and Holler.

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If what the province proposes Tuesday isn't comprehensive, Mr. Kreklewich said, he's considering launching a class-action suit for more compensation – not only for physical damage and lost income, but for the psychological stress the dike breach (and the uncertainty leading up to it) caused.

"It's enough of a burden for us to have gone through what we went through," he said. "If we're all in this together, we should be getting full compensation for everything."

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