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It’s time we stopped paying for your river view

Flooding is predictable and increasingly common, and the government needs to halt its huge bailouts of oblivious homeowners


 
Canadian soldiers inspect a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 7, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canadian soldiers inspect a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, May 7, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Imagine you are house hunting, and you find one that meets your needs perfectly. It’s beautiful. It’s affordable. There are even good schools nearby. But there is only one problem: directly above the house, perched on a cliff, is a giant teetering boulder. The realtor tells you not to worry; it will only fall once, sometime in the next 100 years. Who in their right mind would take those odds? Apparently, millions of you.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, there are 1.8 million households in this situation, homes built on floodplains or in other areas where they are at “very high risk” of flood damage. In British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick thousands of homeowners are discovering this is not a theoretical risk, as a “one in a hundred year” floods submerged entire neighbourhoods this week.

If you’re like me, your first instinct is sympathetic. It must be heartbreaking to have your home ruined, filled with refuse and sewage, furniture and mementoes wrecked. My sympathy begins to dissipate almost instantly, however, when I begin to read about how the federal government is going to cover the cost of sending in the military, and how the homeowners are anxious to move back in and rebuild.

Here’s the problem. The huge river running next to their property was not a secret when they bought it. The instinctive Canadian response, of course, is to blame someone else, usually the government. “No one warned them it could flood.” Well, let’s clear that point up for everyone: rivers rise. If you have a house in a low-lying area, eventually it is going to flood. If you genuinely didn’t understand that before, consider yourself informed.

COUNTERPOINT: Floodplain living isn’t a luxury. It’s a reality we have to deal with.

But, perhaps there is a reason to blame government, at least at the municipal level. City councils across this country have been zoning flood plains as residential for decades now. And why wouldn’t they? Riverside lots are beautiful and they generate more tax dollars. When that once-in-a-century flood comes along, it’s typically the province and the federal government who chip in to pay the costs. Or, more accurately, it’s taxpayers from across the country who foot the bill.

That is what is happening right now. Again. Federal and provincial politicians are promising assistance, of all kinds, to our fellow citizens who were unaware of the giant river next door. The Prime Minister, our empathizer-in-chief, warmed our cockles by assuring everyone, “When Canadians are facing natural disasters or serious issues, we pull together. That’s who we are.”

And this is true. One of the social compacts in this country is that when there is a natural disaster, we spread the risk amongst all of us. This time-honoured contract was based on the idea that a) disaster strikes rarely enough that the costs are sustainable, and b) they can’t be predicted. Neither of those assumptions are still valid.

A new study from the Munk School’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto reports that in recent years the federal government’s spending to reimburse provinces for a portion of their disaster relief and recovery costs more than doubled to $280 million a year and will likely triple again. Across the country, the last two decades have seen a dramatic increase in urban flood damage. Backed up sewers and extreme rainfall accounted for $20 billion alone in costs. The 2013 flood in Calgary cost $5 billion, making it the single most costly natural disaster in Canadian history. The reason is simple. Climate change is creating more extreme weather events, leading to more flooding, which is costing more and more money. And scientists predict it is only going to get worse.

And when it does, it should not be a surprise for anyone. There was extensive nation-wide flood plain mapping several decades ago, which unfortunately was not widely distributed and is hard to come by. But with modern satellite imaging and online mapping services, any homeowner or municipal official can determine if an area is at risk of flooding in a matter of minutes. There is almost no excuse for cities to not be taking preventatives measures, and for buyers to claim they had no idea there was a huge river next door.

Nonetheless, after the floodwaters recede this week all of those homeowners will most likely move back in. Cities will continue to develop more flood-prone lots. And federal and provincial taxpayers will continue to honour our archaic social contract and foot the bill.

Unless we make a few changes. First, let’s begin to cut or even phase out the federal government’s provincial disaster assistance funding for floods. Cities will never spend the money to build flood barriers if someone else is always going to bail them out. Provinces should also require municipalities to carry mandatory flood insurance. City councils in turn should require homeowners to do the same. If you want to drive a car, you need car insurance. If you want to own a house, you should need flood insurance. And, if you discover your insurance company is going to charge you tens of thousands of extra dollars for that river view bungalow, you may pause before buying it. Finally, realtors should be forced to disclose previous flood damage and future flood risk, and be held liable if they do not.

It’s a new world. Our old social compacts need to be adjusted. If flooding is going to continue to get worse, and if homeowners and cities are aware of this in advance, there is no reason the rest of should continue to “pull together” and pick up your bill. You are free to pretend that teetering boulder isn’t going to eventually crash down on your house, but the rest of us won’t.

Scott Gilmore is a member of the Conservative Party, and married to a Liberal Cabinet member


 

It’s time we stopped paying for your river view

  1. Well then we’d better evacuate BC, because it’s a known earthquake zone…..and I doubt they sell earthquake insurance either.

  2. I agree with the writer of the article that people know there is a river and rivers have been known for centuries to flood their banks. It should be mandatory for property owners to have the expensive flood insurance before they move in. Enough paying for someone else to have a “great view” of the river.

    • People built on the river because they were transportation routes, not because of any ‘view’.

      Actually there isn’t a place in this country that doesn’t have a problem…….flood, drought, snow, hail, earthquake, avalanche, fire…….and we all pitch in to help.

      • That may have been the case two hundred years ago but houses built along riverfronts in the last 50+ years are primarily located there because of a) the view, b) the recreational possibilities and c) the guarantee nothing will be built behind you.
        Anyone who builds on a floodplain should be limited to one government bailout. If they don’t build a floodwall that’s a reasonable height, they should not be entitled to assistance with sandbagging, etc. from the government. If they choose not to carry adequate and appropriate flood insurance, the amount that would have been reimbursed under insurance should be deducted from any government compensation. Why should those of us who choose to take appropriate precautions, both in deciding where to live and purchasing appropriate insurance, pay compensation through our taxes to allow someone else to save on their insurance payments?
        You want to play Russian roulette with the river? Go ahead but you do it on your own dime.

        • There is always something. You are being cheap to no purpose.

          Fort Macmurray didn’t do any better than High River

          • How can you use the word ‘cheap’.
            The article states that, last year, relief costs doubled to “$280 million” and will likely triple next year. Backed up sewers etc. cost “$20 billion”. In 2013, Calgary alone spent “$5 billion”.
            I am sure that you haven’t forgotten that governments don’t have any money … it’s our money … or was (until people thought it nice to have a river view).

      • Of course, anything can be insured, even a house built on a hill could be insured very inexpensively against flood damage, just as a house in Ontario can be insured very inexpensively for earthquake damage, etc. On the other hand, you may believe that it will never happen to you. But if it does, I may pitch in to help (as you say) but don’t expect me to pay for it. That’s why sensible people have insurance.

      • You are correct. Edmontonians did build on the North Saskatchewan River because it was a major transportation route. But, when the river valley flooded a hundred years ago, municipal bylaws were created to ensure that very few people lived or worked on that flood plain. As a result, when there were high waters on that river last year, no one was flooded out.

        See…long term municipal planning can work to save lives and money. You just have to have the political will to do it.

    • There is no flood insurance for overland flooding especially. It’s an uninsurable risk. In the United States it is the Federal Government that provides most floodplain insurance at HUGE public cost and with the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers.

      There is no private solution here. You either move the people an incur private losses or you bail them out at public expense.

  3. I have lived nearby, but significantly uphill from the Ottawa River for most of my life, and watched it rise and fall. It moves a lot. In the 80s I remember watching a housing development being constructed on a stretch of shoreline that I had seen flood some years previous, and I wondered what developer was going to lose his shirt when no one bought the houses. I needn’t have worried for the developer… the houses sold. The shape of the land gives clues where a river will flood, and the type of vegetation that grows there. Maybe schools should be running field trips to flooded areas.

  4. This question touches on another aspect of riverside ownership. I believe (and stand corrected) that no one may claim ownership of land that is a certain distance from the waterline. Yet, any attempt to walk alongside any river will usually be met with threats of ‘trespass’. I have no sympathy for those who want their cake and eat it.

  5. Climate change is not increasing floods. Of course the liberals will spin it that way and simpletons then write articles echoing that. You wanna talk numbers Gilmour? 675 million dollars to the CBC over next 4 years. For what? Liberals giving 25 million aid to hammas. Screw you.

  6. https://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=46666DD6E7129-F0EE-AAA1-DF380E91A79096CF

    We have a problem Houston……As Emily pointed out, Canadian cities were built on rivers so even if you don’t let people who are flooded rebuild, are you going to move the whole downtown of Calgary? It is all in a flood plain, not to mention the entire other side of the river…every neighbourhood, including the one where the Calgary zoo is located, Stampede park is located. We aren’t talking about a few neighbourhoods. Next…there is no flood insurance EXCEPT for sewer backup. Flood insurance for natural disasters doesn’t exist. I lived through the Calgary flood. I was evacuated but my street did not flood. My sewer backup flood insurance coverage was dropped from 50 thousand to 15 and my rates doubled. I live on a street where the bank is so high up from the river that the damm would have to have broken in order to have been flooded by river water. Meanwhile, those who did have sewer backup, had a terrible time recouping their insurance money. The truth is that the water was so high, the banks of the Bow River washed away. They have since built up but this water took out huge of land from the mountains through Canmore all the way through Calgary. Diversion projects are the only way to deal with these kinds of perfect storms where there is a late or fast melt of a lot snow and a lot of rain creating vast amounts of water and soil so saturated that it has no where to go but down very validly flowing rivers. Scott, some very wealthy people never even took the government money as it would not have covered their fixtures in their multi million dollar homes and some had damage to two homes…their Calgary residence and their vacation home in Canmore. The Calgary flood was the first one that affected mostly rich people. The flooding was so extensive, it was far beyond those who had a view of the river.

    • Insurance policies are available to cover almost anything … including flooding. Of course, the premiums may be prohibitively equal to your house mortgage … but it would be available.

      In the Calgary example that you give, if the whole city is built on a flood plain, then the city should, probably, be responsible for compensation. Of course, in that case, provincial taxation will be raised to cover the compensation. Perhaps, Calgarians believe that increased provincial transfer payments should be acquired … from Quebec. ;-)

      This should be a wakeup call, you can’t get blood from a stone, and you can’t have your cake and eat it. Why have such expressions been said for hundreds of years.

      • https://mitchellwhale.com/acts-god-property-insurance-cover/

        I am sorry but you not correct. No insurance company in Canada covers acts of God be it Forrest fires, floods caused by weather, tornados, hurricanes. Flooding due to sewer backup are different and they do cover hail damage. In order to believe what you are suggesting…that people can get insurance for weather related flooding, forest fires and tornadoes, etc., one would have to believe that people choose not to get insurance. Do you really believe no one in Fort McMurray had fire insurance? Come on….a whole city of home owners didn’t get fire coverage.

        Calgary is not alone in being built on flood plain. I visited Ottawa. It too is built on flood plain. The parliament would be flooded if the Rideau Canal overflowed. As for Calgarians being compensated, Albertans also compensated Slave Lake residents for their fire which destroyed many homes built too close to the surrounding forestry. That fire was caused by arson. Again, initially it was considered a natural disaster and as such people’s home insurance didn’t cover them. Fort McMurray could not have a repeat of the Forrest fire they experienced last year for the next 30 years because it will take that long for the Borel Forrest in the area to reach the age and poor condition that forrest was in last year in order to burn the way it did. If they did controlled burning like they do in the national parks, Fort McMurray would not have burned like it did last year.

        • http://www.infoinsurance.ca/en/news/detail/139_seven-questions-to-better-understand-flood-insurance

          Forgive me, I have made an error. It seems as of March, 2017…so 2 months or so ago, in Quebec…some insurance companies started offering overland flood insurance for the first time ever. What were these Quebecers thinking? Why were they so lazy as to not rush out and get the insurance immediately upon its becoming available? It couldn’t be that they never knew it was available. Could it? Apparently, it has also become available in the provinces of Alberta and Ontario so we will expect that all of your friends in Ottawa have it, Scott. Perhaps you might suggest your wife’s party lobby for country wide insurance availability for acts of God and advertise when said insurance is available for purchase and then we can all go out and purchase it.

      • There is very limited overland flood insurance in Canada. The outlay costs in a natural disaster would exceed premiums unless those premiums would have been collected for 500+ years. IN the 1970s and 80s in the US hundreds of insurance companies went bust from flood insurance. People got nothing despite paying premiums (Doonesbury ran a series about it).

        It is myth there is insurance for most events. Not true at all. Most risks are uninsurable.

        Quebec flood insurance is subsidized, and ridiculously unaffordable without. It also doesn’t cover expected losses, so is more of a marketing ploy. It might lay off 5 cents on the $ of loss. Have you seen the deductibles? Have $5,000 laying around?

        The blunt reality is private flood insurance for overland events is effectively non-existent.

  7. Have Canadians learned nothing from history? Hurricane Hazel in 1954, caused significant flooding, killed 81 people, and is the primary reason why Torontonians are not allowed to build houses along the riverbanks.

    • If we continue to experience flooding, we will start building houses on stilts like they do in coastal towns in the US.

  8. I don’t know where to start. Maybe with this: it isn’t as simple as Scott Gilmore makes it out to be. People don’t buy in floodplains because they love to play with danger and stand in lines for help, they buy the house they can afford at the time. Some of the homes on my street have been there since the 1950s and were built to withstand normal flooding. This is not normal flooding. Maybe Mr. Gilmore knew in 1955 that there was global warming and that floodplains would enlarge, but then he would be a clairvoyant. It’s all well and good to prescribe people not to buy houses that are at risk, but I don’t think that is a solution to the problem. It would be more helpful if Mr. Gilmore wasn’t a member of a party that tries to deny global warming, or that has fuelled global warming as much as possible. Pointing the finger at people who have just lost everything they ever had, who are facing possibly losing their homes entirely is sanctimonious and facile. These costs are not the costs of a river view, they are the cost of ignoring global climate change. Maybe the government or taxpayers shouldn’t pay, in that case, maybe the oil companies should pay. Don’t buy a house with a boulder above it that will fall one day, sure, but let’s also not fund industries like the oil sands that will inevitably push that boulder onto the house.
    When faced with the choice of solidarity with my brothers and sisters or blaming them for their hardship, for me the choice is clear.

    • So … you expected flooding just a bit less than you got? If you sink a foundation in the ground and all you get is alluvial soil, you know the river has been there. Even without climate change, it should be obvious that climate varies. Don’t think that so called 100 year events happen only 100 years apart and don’t ignore the fact that such events are defined by a threshold i.e. water past a certain point regardless of how far. After a recent (in historical terms) Winnipeg flood, the mayor made some stupid or perhaps CYA statements using terms like ‘unprecedented’; however, since this was a major Hudson’s Bay post and since the diligent clerks and surveyors of the company recorded all in detail for more than a century , this was clearly political spin not evidence based policy.
      While climate change is a substantial effect, climate is a large scale average: local weather and even regional climate constantly deviates from the averages, sometimes in protracted events such as ‘the little ice age’ or the ‘dirty 30s’; the larger the deviation the less frequently it is likely to occur but that is no guarantee that it won’t. Also landforms are constantly changing, particularly rivers and river valleys which change rapidly in geological time frames; just fly over any major waterway and see all the places it used to be. But don’t discount human activity: merely clearing bush and swamp away from the shores of a river increases flood crests. Also, eliminating cover and improving drainage leads to subsidence of alluvial soil so even if the flood isn’t higher, the land is lower; municipal sewers are merely a human activity that makes floods worse. New Orleans is a salient example: when the French first built it, dykes only needed to be ~2m high; thanks to drainage and modifications to the landscape, the land has sunk to where 7m dykes are insufficient and, in spite of billions spent on control measures, many billions more could only marginally improve flood resistance (it’s merely a holding action). So called flood control structures don’t, as many choose to imagine, make the water go away, they just redistribute it with governments deciding who receives more water and who less. You fail to mention how much clearing, development and hardscape has been added upstream since 1955.

  9. Where’s the part of this story that would direct a flooding victim to all that national largesse being shelled-out to help them?

    I’m scanning high and low to find somebody who’ll help me pay to have three inches of suporrating sh*t removed fom the rec room. I’d even settle for platoon of PPCLI and buy them a box of beer or two! Apparently somebody’s getting ‘goodies’ because they’re ‘in the know’ (like the NDP’s “corporate welfare bums”) with funding sources.

    So now that you’ve got us all ‘het-up’ about getting new stuff for nothing from our fellow taxpayers – give us the BIG finish – tell us where do we apply? Please don’t leave us ‘unfulfilled’ like real Tories so often do.

  10. Undoubtedly the the houses in Ottawa that peer out with satisfaction onto the river are rather expensive. No doubt the owners can afford the restoration work required after one of those inconvenient spring floods. But if you bother to let your gaze wander up or down river, or to other rivers in those unhipstered areas throughout the country, houses built on floodplains wear the scars of previous floods. People buy these houses not for the views, but because they’re cheap. The basements are moldy and the foundations unstable. Go inside, and you can discern the past with your nose. Yeah, it stinks bad sometimes. Yards have been washed away. Children play in mud. All that, but it’s a roof and four walls, and when winter’s coming, it looks pretty good. In a country that gets by on part-time jobs and a pathetic minimum wage, floodplain housing is about is good as it’s going to get for the vast majority. They don’t need elitist snobs like you, Scott Gilmore, shaming them to make better housing choices and to consider nature’s fickle wrath as they struggle to survive.

    • If one is unable to buy a house on a hill, I would advise renting.
      If one is only able to drive a ‘lemon’, travel by bus.
      Just as thousands of other people do.

      If one is without the skills or experience to find only a part-time job or get more than a pathetic minimum wage, then, one should not feel entitled to home ownership, and feel satisfied to be part of (as you say incorrectly) the “vast majority”.

  11. This is a really stupid article. I mean, there are waterfront properties worldwide….what, we are just going to stop building houses on waterfronts and ignore those which are in a time of crisis?

    I think one should have flood insurance if they own a home that could be flooded but that’s kind of irrelevant here, for sure, but the military isn’t there just to try to help homeowners save their properties, they are there for the overall safety of the area.

    It’s not like the government is going to be buying these people new couches and TVs.

    Truly an ignorant article.

    Scott Gilmore should think before he writes.

    • Surely, if everyone realized the importance of good home insurance, i.e., not simply an inexpensive policy covering one’s personal computer, then, it would not be “irrelevant”.

      These days, it is relevant to observe the obvious rise of a sad entitlement society.

      • Hills that aren’t made of rock are also at risk for corrosion during severe storms with lots of water accumulation. Have you never seen houses swept away by mud slides? In Edmonton several years ago, a few houses perched on a hill fell into the North Saskatchewan river due to errorision. My guess is there was no insurance for that. What about houses falling into sink holes?
        Also, insurance companies make money by not providing great service. They are in the business of not covering those who are at risk. No only did they decrease our flood damage insurance coverage to 15 thousand from 50 thousand after the Calgary flood in 2013 but they tried to cut off our coverage for our roof saying we hadn’t replaced it in 20 years when in fact they had covered the replacement of it due to hail damage a few years earlier. I will call my insurer and ask about overland flood insurance when technically I live in a neighbourhood in a flood plain, given I was evacuated in 2013. My guess is the answer will be no even though there wasn’t a drop of water on my street. My property values certainly have dropped since then while those in the adjoining neighbourhood that isn’t considered in the flood plain and didn’t get evacuated, have steadily risen. It isn’t about entitlement, it is about the fact that our government needs to recognize that water diversion projects are a much better investment than new NHL hockey rinks or investments in Bombardier.

      • By this theory, excellent liability insurance is the cure for drunk driving.

        • Well, given the 2013 Calgary flood originated in Banff national park and destroyed homes in Canmore, shut down the transCanada highway before hitting Calgary and High River, that flood was not really about Calgary so much as diverting spring run off from the Rockies into catch basins and that is exactly the plan. It is a smart plan because we can’t move the Rockies or control the amount of snow fall and the speed of the spring melt.

    • Mr Gilmore did touch on the culpability of governments: every time they build more roads with storm sewers, permit the removal of forest and brush from drainage basins, move creeks and streams into culverts or straighten them and/or hardscape the embankments, permit large industrial and commercial developments to use drainage basins for run-off discharge, permit (actually mandate) drainage plumbing in all development and discharge storm sewers into waterways, they’re increasing the degree of flooding possible. These days, governments are almost entirely responsible for site selection: few will settle where municipal services are not provided and lots not zoned. Pretty generally, politicians are completely complicit often preventing flood maps from being published and suppressing flood management planning and plans. Even worse, with the data in hand (as with the city of Calgary) building expensive public facilities in proven high-risk areas which is far from responsible use of taxpayer’s money.

      • Yes….you are getting it. People have owned homes in the flood plains because the homes have been there for almost 100 years with no flood until 2013. Actually, were I am there is so much river rock in our soil when others get flooded basements, we never do because we have incredible run off. As for insurance, they dropped our coverage down to such a minisucle level, not by our choice and jacked our fees up to a huge amount for that minisucle coverage and we never had a flood. Those that had a flood, had their fees lifted by over 250 percent so I think they are paying their own way. If you think someone wants to buy a house in a flood neighbourhood, you are wrong. Should Calgary just abandon its whole downtown and the countless neighbourhoods? Should be abandon Banff National Park and Canmore as well as the town of High River? The flood didn’t limit itself to the areas around the river, it flooded the transCanada highway. That would mean re-routing the road west to BC. This water came from the Rocky Mountains so perhaps we should do something about them. Of course, it wasn’t long after that and people were crying about a drought and talking about the end of skiing in Canada as we didn’t have enough snow at Lake Louise to host the Men’s downhill in late November.

  12. It’s plain foolish not to insure for the worst, which means worse than this year.
    It is very silly to believe that it’ll not happen again.
    Governments that permit the rebuilding in a floodplain must be held culpable.
    Don’t be a silly fool.

  13. I don’t mind the miserable bastard comment, but to call me uneducated because I don’t believe what you believe DR… interesting. We’re all guilty of confirmation bias. No one wins at internet arguments.
    .

  14. If you are living in flood prone area then probabilities of water damage in home is unavoidable. But to protect your home from its adverse affect you can take some remedial measure like installation of flood alarm, sump pump, clean drainage system, cleaning of sewer mains. All these steps are worth enough to reduce your stress but still the requirement of flooded basement Long Island cannot be replaced by any other tool.

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