City staff urge Toronto council to request city be declared 'disaster area'

TORONTO – Toronto city council was urged Friday to ask the Ontario government to declare Canada’s largest city a “disaster area” — a move required to qualify for funding to deal with the havoc wreaked by two major storms in 2013.

The recommendation was made by city staff who advised Toronto to seek financial help from Ontario and the federal government for the storms’ $171-million damage bill.

That figure included at least $106 million in damage from a vicious pre-Christmas ice storm and $65.2 million in costs related to a severe rainstorm on July 8 that flooded parts of the city.

Toronto did not declare a state of emergency during the ice storm which downed hydro lines, cut power to hundreds of thousands and stalled road and air travel for days.

The city’s controversial mayor — who late last year had many of his powers stripped away from him — repeatedly said he did not see the need to declare an emergency and the province noted all aid it could provide was available whether such a declaration was made or not.

Mayor Rob Ford has since said he plans to move a motion asking Ontario and Ottawa for an initial $60 million in disaster relief aid to cope with storm-related damage.

Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who would have been in control had Ford declared an emergency, said the current advice to declare Toronto a disaster area is a bit of an “awkward” situation.

“But it shouldn’t be a hurdle that we can’t get over,” he said. “This is a big bill for us and I know it’s a big bill for other municipalities and if you don’t ask, you may not get.”

The city’s manager has explained that the “disaster” declaration being sought is simply what the Ontario’s Disaster Relief Assistance Program requires in order to qualify for funding.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussions that we didn’t declare an emergency but we’re declaring a natural disaster area,” said Joe Pennachetti. “In order to get money from this program, we have to technically declare a natural disaster. That’s why we are recommending this wording. It’s a requirement of the legislation.”

Staff recommend the city, the province and the federal government each bear one-third — or about $57 million — of the total storm-related costs.

City staff are also urging Toronto council to request that Queen’s Park and Ottawa establish or expand disaster mitigation programs involving urban forestry, erosion control, winter storms and other severe weather events.

“We need a specific program, amendments to programs or new programs with the federal and provincial governments in order to cover all of the issues that we’re having,” said Pennachetti.

The city has already been discussing the matter with federal officials, he added, and “they understand it.”

Toronto has faced resistance from the province on the matter in the past though, with Ontario refusing to help with costs related to the rain storm that swamped parts of the city last summer.

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs has recently said, however, that the province would take the cost of the flood damage into account when assessing the city’s request for help with the cost of the ice storm cleanup.

The Ministry said it won’t determine if communities are eligible for Ontario’s Disaster Relief Assistance Program until it gets formal requests for help.

The storm impacted dozens of other communities in Ontario and Pennachetti said the total bill from all the affected municipalities could top $250 million.

At least four Ontario municipal councils — Brampton, Mississauga, Caledon, and North Perth — have already voted on motions asking for their municipalities to be declared as disaster areas, and that other councils have called special meetings to review similar motions.

In Toronto, the mayor’s brother, Coun. Doug Ford, said Rob Ford would likely be heading up what he called a Greater Toronto Area task force to appeal for funding from higher levels of government.

“I think we should all have a consensus that we need support from the provincial government, we need support from the federal government,” Doug Ford said.

Toronto city council will continue on Monday to discuss whether to ask for provincial and federal funding.