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Flood protection remains a Wild West in Calgary

Darrell Joy, right, and Neil Tice, founders of Geo-Steering Solutions, in their dry, refurbished office at 10th Avenue SE last week. The laptop shows a photo of the same office, in the Demcor building, under water last spring.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Geo-Steering Solutions Inc. had been renting the basement of Calgary's Demcor building for only five months when floodwaters hit on the weekend of June 21 last year.

"We'd just got settled in," says Darrell Joy, president and chief executive officer of the geological drill-monitoring company. The historic former warehouse at 10th Avenue SE and Macleod Trail hadn't been flooded before, so "we weren't worried about it before at all."

Once the floodwaters hit, though, their office space became a 2.5-metre-high "desk and chair soup," says Lee Mayne, the building's property manager with Allied Properties REIT. Allied, though, had spare office space in another building, and Geo-Steering was able to set up there within 10 days, she says.

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They remained there until January of this year, when Allied completed the cleanup of the downtown building's basement and foundation. It's structurally sound, but the stone walls still bear the signs of a flood – eroded, discoloured.

The landlord inevitably claimed the damage, more than $500,000, through insurance. Instead of investing in measures that might mitigate damage from future floods, Allied has decided to risk more damage again at that location – because, frankly, it's cheaper.

While Alberta offered funding to flooded homeowners through its Disaster Recovery Program to mitigate future flooding damage – which for private residences is often not insurable – commercial property owners have no incentives, or even recommendations, from the province to make changes. For these landlords, life along the Bow and Elbow rivers is a flood recovery Wild West: As long as they keep their tenants safe, they can do as much or as little as they want.

In September, the Insurance Bureau of Canada called the floods "the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history," with insured property damage in the city soaring past $1.7-billion. That's just direct damage; the Alberta government calculated last September that nearly $500-million of economic output was lost by the private sector during the flood.

Bill Partridge, president of the city's Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA), says landlords are "in limbo" without any flood-protection measures from the government, risking more economic slowdown in the face of another disaster.

A spokesman for Alberta's Ministry of Municipal Affairs, which is overseeing residential flood mitigation funding, said there were no official mitigation recommendations for commercial buildings.

If landlords aren't able to rely on the city and the province for some level of protection, Mr. Partridge suggests government is "becoming redundant."

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"We have to protect people and physical assets," Mr. Partridge says. "We can't afford to have a significant economic engnine shut down because we can't get it working."

As a result, landlords are taking action on their own terms. Oxford Properties, for example, is moving systems, such as backup generators, to higher floors in affected buildings, and altering water-pump systems. Others, like Allied, have opted not to make major structural changes to buildings in the flood zone.

Only two of Allied's then 19 buildings in Calgary were affected by flooding. One took on about a metre of water in its basement, which was mainly used for storage; the other, the Demcor, saw its whole lower level flooded. After clearing out the water, damaged furniture, and about 20 centimetres of silt, Allied had to bring in new electrical and mechanical equipment.

Despite being in the flood zone, Allied kept those systems in the basement simply because there was nowhere else in the building to put them without altering the structure or shuffling tenants.

The company knows it's taking a gamble. "If we take on that much water again, the basement's going to flood again," Ms. Mayne says. Instead of redesigning the old building, she says Allied will keep an open dialogue with tenants and make plans to ensure their businesses aren't compromised in future floods.

The lowest level of the parking garage at Oxford's Centennial Place, a pair of office skyscrapers in Eau Claire near the Bow River, flooded. David Routledge, Oxford's vice-president of western real estate, says this prompted the company to move its emergency diesel generator's fuel tank four floors higher in its underground parkade. They've also added new fully-submersible water pumps in the lowest levels, and will keep specialized contractors on standby.

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The flood also prompted Oxford to make changes to its Eau Claire Tower project under construction nearby: electrical and mechanical systems, as well as the diesel tank, will be situated mostly on the ground floor rather than in the parkade to prevent damage. "We've been thoughtful and diligent, taking the learnings from the flood and transporting them to the new project," Mr. Routledge says.

Marco Civitarese, Calgary's chief building official, says, "It's becoming evident that if people are being diligent, they will move their systems."

Even Calgary's Municipal Building, the enormous structure that houses city hall, had all seven levels of its underground parkade fill with floodwater – prompting the city to make numerous changes, including adding more sump pump capacity and moving that system's electrical controls five levels higher.

While the province is largely in charge of flood recovery measures, the city played a large part in the immediate response; more than 100 safety code officers were dispatched to inspect affected properties. City officials also worked with office and condo tower owners to let tenants re-enter and eventually reoccupy the towers, sometimes setting up "fire watch" teams to monitor each floor if fire-response systems were shut down.

The city is also running education initiatives. "Looking forward, there's a lot of preparedness talk," Mr. Civitarese says. "The anxiety level is high" among residents who were affected last year, he says, so the city is setting up specific protocols to be more organized and efficient in the future.

Ms. Mayne hopes that governments will give the public earlier notice of the potential for a deadly mix of icepack melts and torrential rains, to better warn Albertans of another disaster. That way they can give better notice to tenants such as Geo-Steering, which lost all of its furniture, and even TVs mounted high on the wall.

"Everything was toast," Mr. Joy says. In spite of the odds, though, one thing stayed dry. "The kitchen table we had here had lifted up, floated into the common area, and laid itself down. There was a box of cereal on top – it never got wet."

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More


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