Flood, risk avoidance, and mandatory buyouts1 May 11, 2017 at 3:58 pm by Glenn McGillivray
As this is being written, floodwaters are slowly receding after having inundated some 300 homes in the Ottawa area, and nearly 4,000 properties in the province of Quebec. And judging by modern Canadian history, there is a really good chance that in the weeks and months ahead, everything will simply be put back the way it was and forgotten. Then the next deluge will come, and the powers-that-be will feign surprise all over again.
This is largely what we do in Canada.
That being said, there is currently a push on to have governments take this latest flood event as a teachable moment and implement aggressive measures to prevent a recurrence.
One such measure would be to implement mandatory buyouts of properties in the floodway, i.e. the portion of the flood hazard area that includes the main channel of a stream and a portion of the adjacent overbank area, sometimes characterized as the 1 in 20 year floodplain.
Looking at this current flood event from a risk management perspective, there would be three areas or things that can be looked at to help reduce flood risk, recover as quickly as possible should a loss occur, and prevent a repeat of the event in the future.
The three things are: Avoidance, Loss Prevention, and Risk Transfer.
Avoidance can mean either reducing risk by not participating in a particular undertaking, or stopping a particular undertaking in order to prevent future losses.
There are two things that are important to note about risk avoidance.
First, while the most absolute way of preventing any risk is to avoid it altogether, avoidance also means that any potential gain from undertaking a particular activity is lost. So risk avoidance often means tradeoffs.
Second, avoiding risk by ceasing to undertake a once-allowed activity does not entirely remove risk, because there would still be legacy risk to deal with. So in the context of constructing on floodways, if you once allowed the practice but at some point ban it, there would still be risk from those structures built when the practice was allowed.
This is largely the case in the flood affected areas right now. While it appears from photos and news video that there are some newer homes that have been affected by the flooding, the bulk of the properties appear to have been built decades ago.
So what does risk avoidance look like in the context of flood?
Risk avoidance for flood can mean never allowing construction on a floodway. This is the case in some countries, but unfortunately was not always the case in Canada. Historically, we allowed construction in the floodway and, now, there are many older parts of cities and towns that are in danger of flooding, and do flood on an occasional basis.
But risk avoidance for flooding can also mean reversing some of the bad decisions of the past by implementing mandatory buyout programs for those at immediate risk of flooding.
One of the most effective buyout programs in Canadian history came after Hurricane Hazel ravaged parts of Southern Ontario in 1954, killing more than 80 people. The mandatory buyouts were used in parts of Long Branch and Etobicoke in the Toronto area to remove 192 flood prone homes in Long Branch and a smaller number in Etobicoke. In total more than 200 properties were purchased and the neighbourhoods turned into parkland and greenspace. Now, when these places flood – like they did late last week – 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 and the initiative contributed to Southern Ontario being seen as one of the leaders in flood management in Canada.
The voluntary buyouts offered by the Alberta government after the 2013 event, conversely, are viewed by many as a failure. Only 96 or so homeowners of a possible 254 accepted the offer. According to the Calgary Sun, 96 buyouts totalled $92.9 million — including 17 properties in Calgary totalling $48.8 million. Those who opted to stay received a one-time payment to make repairs, but have been barred from applying for provincial disaster assistance going forward.
Now 1954 was a different time. Are mandatory flood buyouts still possible in today’s political and social climate?
After the deluge that inundated parts of Sydney, Nova Scotia and area last Thanksgiving, the province bought out 17 homeowners whose properties were deemed uninhabitable. The homes were assessed at their pre-flood fair market value and the last cheque was due to go out last week. The last home will be razed by the end of the month and the area will be deemed a ‘no-build zone’.
The current cycle of build/flood/clean up/rebuild/flood again is neither sustainable nor is it in any way sensible.
In the long run, it makes much more sense, financially and otherwise, to buy out property owners and convert the land into parks and greenspace.
If not, we will never be able to expect a different result.
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