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Quebec floods recede but competing demands fill prevention debate

Olivier St-Denis pulls Marie-Pierre Chalifoux through the flooded streets of Saint-André-d’Argenteuil, Que., on Tuesday.

Dario Ayala/the globe and mail

Two days before the major Quebec spring floods began, the mayor of a Montreal suburb proudly announced a new city hall would finally be built after years of renting space in a former shopping centre.

The purchase of $1.1-million of prime property in Vaudreuil-Dorion was a bargain and would not cost taxpayers an extra cent on their annual bill, Mayor Guy Pilon said. And what a view. The site sits at the water's edge at the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers.

Two weeks later, a good chunk of the land was under water.

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Read more: Quebec neighbours band together to hold off flood damage

Since catastrophic flooding struck 4,701 homes in Quebec and hundreds more in Ontario over the past two weeks, a ritual familiar from floods across the country has taken place. The rush to rescue and protect property is followed by military reinforcements and then a stream of politicians promising a generous rebuild.

As the waters receded and stabilized on Friday with parts of central Quebec still on high alert and rain in the forecast, officials promised to do things differently next time. Such promises have been made before, but experts say little has changed in Quebec and most provinces.

In Vaudreuil-Dorion, even municipal officials were not too worried about building next to the water, until now. "The land was always going to be part of an extension of our waterfront park system. Maybe that's all it will be and city hall will go somewhere else," Mr. Pilon said. "We'll see."

Costs for federal disaster assistance have risen from an annual inflation-adjusted average of $54-million before 1994 to $410-million since 2004, according to the parliamentary budget officer. Provinces and insurance companies have spent billions more.

The aftermath of the Quebec flood has led to a cacophony of cries from competing interests for contradictory measures, ranging from victims asking for an increase in compensation to others arguing that no financial assistance should go to homeowners who move into flood zones. Some want more marshlands, others more concrete barriers.

The competing demands are a reflection of the splatter of jurisdictions and authorities handling flood prevention in most of Canada. Here are the pros and cons of ways flood management in the country could change.

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Whose risk?

Every natural disaster brings forward the concept of moral hazard – an idea that people do not have the incentive to evaluate risk conservatively if they do not face consequences for getting it wrong.

Many free-market enthusiasts say individuals who own waterfront property should carry the burden of the risk. Others suggest flood insurance should be mandatory, but it is expensive and rarely available in flood zones.

A problem with the hardline view, experts say, is that 1.8-million Canadian households are in flood-prone areas, and most of them do not know it. Governments have failed to document that risk with information for citizens. Municipalities hungry for revenue allow and encourage development on low lands.

"It's really unfair to say flood victims should know better and be on their own," said Daniel Henstra, a University of Waterloo professor and co-author of a paper published last month that showed only 6 per cent of Canadian flood zone residents know they are at risk. "Frankly, it's not easy for people to know if they are at risk of flooding and if they are, most people aren't good at evaluating risk."

It is also wrong to suggest flood victims do not pay for their suffering. Most provinces have caps on how much compensation they will give ($159,000 for a home in Quebec). People whose property floods are almost always thousands of dollars out of pocket.

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No maps

Ottawa's main role in flooding is to send in the military and help pay bills. But in the 1970s, after a spate of flooding, the federal government and provinces started a massive mapping project called the Flood Damage Reduction Program.

Most of the mapping carried out until 1995 was never really put to use by the provinces and municipalities, Dr. Henstra said, and frustrated federal officials facing budget constraints let the program die.

In some areas of the United States and Europe, a simple address or postal code search reveals flood maps and history. "Since 2007 in Europe, they know exactly who is in those zones, how many people, demographic information, how many hospitals," said Pascale Biron, a geographer and specialist in river dynamics at Concordia University.

Such data and disclosure practices strike fear of litigation and plunging property values into local politicians, but Dr. Henstra said experience says otherwise. "In areas of the United States where the information was made public, there was a temporary drop in property values, but it was very marginal," he said.

Organizational tangle

Managing watersheds and shorelines in Quebec involves municipalities, toothless watershed authorities and about a half-dozen provincial government departments often working at cross purposes.

Experts point to Ontario as one province with better practices. Conservation districts are organized around watersheds and strictly control development in flood zones – over the heads of cities and towns.

The system came into place after Hurricane Hazel in 1954 triggered massive flooding that killed 81 people. Similar reforms were not undertaken after the Saguenay flood in 1996 killed 10 Quebeckers.

Concrete action

In May, 1642, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve established the French colony of Ville-Marie in present-day Old Montreal. Seven months later, an unseasonable melt flooded the settlement. Montreal's original flood mitigation plan was settlers planting a cross on Mont Royal and praying for the waters to recede. It worked.

Subsequent generations left little to chance. Over centuries, dozens of creeks and rivers that once cut across the city were filled in or turned into drainage sewers to create the high walls of the concrete port that saves downtown from shoreline flooding.

Fast forward 375 years to a few months ago, when Pierrefonds-Roxboro, one of the Montreal suburbs hit hardest in the current flood, shelved a plan to raise a one-kilometre stretch of a shoreline street by one metre so it could act as a dike. The project was in the works for 10 years and met constant regulatory hurdles before it finally died because residents did not think it was necessary.

Mr. Pilon, the mayor of Vaudreuil-Dorion laments that provincial regulations and the environmental movement have all but blocked building embankments, dikes and other man-made flood mitigation measures.

"We can't place a stone on the water's edge without encountering provincial resistance," Mr. Pilon said. "Techniques that worked for centuries are no longer allowed. There is no way to protect ourselves until lives are in danger."

History and politics repeat

After a 2013 flood, the Alberta government offered to buy 254 homes in the southern flood zone, most of them in Calgary. Only 89 home owners accepted the offer at a cost of $93-million.

Most of the others took government aid to rebuild with a caveat that the Alberta government would never cover flood losses on the properties again.

It seems an elegant solution, but it is expensive and requires future governments to ignore pleas for aid from future flooded homeowners.

What usually happens, experts say, is that politics override caveats. Just as Jean Charest's government let Saint-Jean residents rebuild in a key swing riding after the 2011 flood, Quebec authorities are now looking to boost the $159,000 cap on compensation without even talking about land use and risk-management issues.

"We must show our solidarity at moments like this," Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said on Friday.

Dr. Biron put it more bluntly: "It's political suicide to let people rot."

Experts like Dr. Biron and Dr. Henstra say the provinces need to start from zero before embarking on complicated buyback schemes or cutting off aid.

They need to redraw maps using historical data and modern planning technology. They need to publish street-by-street data so everyone knows exactly what they are buying when they move into a flood plain. They need to stop new development in flood zones and enforce building codes for flood mitigation.

"We have the technology. The science is available. What's lacking is the will and a plan and someone in charge," Dr. Biron said. "No one is in charge."

Video: Quebec's Mauricie region prepares for more flooding (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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