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SUCCESSIVE FLOODS: PREPARING FOR THE NEW NORMAL
By Gillian Ward
The most valuable properties in Canadian cities and towns tend toward the waterfront, or the river view. With increasingly severe weather events of the last decade, flood losses are occurring with alarming frequency. As the Ottawa Watershed has experienced devastating flooding for the second time in as many years, homeowners, municipalities and government leaders are making plans for a new normal.
WaterToday heard from Gatineau resident Thomas Little for a first-person view of the 2017 and 2019 floods in his city. Like many Canadians, Thomas Little's home is his single greatest investment and asset, and as many of us, he had expected to retire on the appreciated value of his residential property. In the aftermath of the second flood, property values in stricken areas were down 25-50%, homes being uninsurable for any future flood event, therefore largely unmarketable. Mr. Little searched for a solution to his own personal crisis, keeping all of his neighbours in mind along the way.
In the 26 years that Thomas Little has lived in his Gatineau Riverfront home, he has experienced two back to back floods, 2017 and again this spring. Longer resident neighbours say one previous flood in 1976 occurred as a result of a log jam on the river, a man-made disaster. The 2017 flood was considered a once in a lifetime happenstance, with damages partially insured and municipal relief, volunteers and free Tim Horton's coffee.
During the 2017 flood, Little says the riverfront homes on his street were barricaded behind protective sandbag walls. When the walls were breached, the Little home sustained $68,000 in damages. The City had promised to compensate 90% of the uninsured losses but when the final tally came in, the available relief funds covered less than half of the cost of repairs, according to Little.
In spring of 2019, the Ottawa watershed experienced widespread flooding again. Flow control management along the river system's dozens of reservoirs and dams did not hold back the spring melt. Water Today estimated 60,000 impacted properties along the flood zone on both sides of the Ontario/Quebec border, many of the afflicted had still not recovered from the last flood.
Volunteer response in 2019 was underwhelming, with a dozen folks turning up to help fill and stack sandbags. Thomas Little used 18,000 sandbags to build an 80 ft section of wall to protect his property, at his cost to hire the help. The wall held. The Little home sustained no damage this time, but the cost to construct and later remove 80 feet of sandbag wall took $12,000 from the piggy bank, an uninsured loss. An even greater cost, to mental and physical wellbeing, the sand wall had to be monitored for breaks and seepage for two full months, with gas powered pumps running continuously. The pressure took a heavy toll on Mr. Little, who got very little sleep during that time. "I just can't do this anymore", says Little, if another flood happened within the next few years. Instead, he has been investigating alternative, long term solutions for future flood risk management.
Sandbag walls are technology right out of the 1800's, a pale shelter, temporary, single-use non-solution that creates a hazardous waste disposal problem after the flood waters have receded. For municipalities to rely on individual property owners to correctly engineer and place the sandbag walls and provide round-the-clock monitoring for breach and seepage for weeks and months on end has got to be the most untenable proposition going. As Mr. Little pointed out, homeowners are of variable means, physically and financially, and being relied upon to perform the work of building and maintaining the wall and continuously running the necessary pumps is a crisis in itself. Homeowners are of varying opinions, priorities and presence, some properties are rented, and the commitment to save the property by sacrificing one's back, sleep and savings account varies along the waterfront.
In his quest for an effective solution to his own personal flood risk, Thomas Little made contact with several suppliers of flood control solutions, including Flood Control Canada (FCC), a Kelowna, BC business that consults and supplies flood barriers.
WaterToday spoke with FCC owner, Dirk Stroda.
In Netherlands, where a great deal of the nation has developed below sea level, dyke systems have been perfected to hold back the weight and pressure of the tidal water. River areas require flood barriers that can handle fast flowing water, and whatever debris might be flowing along. There are options, from thick glass walls that preserve the peaceful view but handle the impact of solid objects slamming into the panels from the force of floodwaters. Stroda says his company offers many options depending on the circumstance, claiming a track record of success in 60,000 plus sites in 27 countries around the world.
As Canada considers advancing from sandbags to reusable, impermeable flood control systems, there are considerations of public safety. Flood waters seek the weakest link in the wall, and once the pressure has built up behind a barrier, the potential damage done by the failure of that barrier is often worse than what may have occurred from unrestrained flood water.
In some cases, the property owner may want to lift the home and install a multi-point "raft foundation", which keeps the building intact on a single rigid plane even as the ground below the foundation shifts. This is a more costly option than installing flood barrier panels but may be desired in certain cases. WaterToday spoke with William Vangool, the engineer that developed the rigid foundation in response to a request from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) thirty years ago. "In thirty years, we have not had a foundation fail", said Vangool. A great option, if you can afford it.
A safe and effective flood control system would have to be rated and suited for the job it must do, installed correctly, with adequate foundation and supports. How municipalities will deal with private homeowners using a variety of flood walls, at various strengths, heights and capabilities is a matter of interest. With Flood Control Canada , and other companies offering sandbag alternatives, mechanical flood barriers may become more common as individual homeowners act to protect their homes.
If a model could accurately predict where and when flooding would occur, planning and placing protective equipment would be more straightforward, but floods are not predictable like that. Snowpack, spring rains, rate of melting, ice jams are factors that most watersheds can handle, most of the time, but with these factors occurring simultaneously, with increasing intensity and frequency, floods are becoming more common.
As we contemplate floods being our "new normal", it seems that collaboration between private property owners, municipal, provincial and federal governments is necessary to coordinate a flood control master plan for communities, to protect public and private property, especially critical infrastructure.
With insurability underpinning the buy and sell market for riverfront properties, we felt that the topic of flood risk mitigation ought to include the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
We contacted IBC to find out what measures could be taken by individual property owners, if any, to make their homes eligible for flood insurance. We also wondered how a municipally coordinated flood mitigation plan might impact the future insurability of homes in sensitive areas, but unfortunately received no response.
As flood risk seems to be here to stay, the collaboration between public and private interest needs to begin ahead of the next spring thaw. With master planning for the flood zones, governments and private property owners could share in the cost of an approved and coordinated system, through tax credits, rebates and government backed loans.
As Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Ralph Goodale indicated at the Prairie Water Summit in Saskatchewan this week, his office has spent more on disaster relief in the last six years than in all previous 43 years combined. Clearly, the prevention of loss is going to be less costly than paying for the damage that could occur from another unmitigated flood season. Minister Goodale challenged community leaders, academics, engineers and water stakeholders of the prairies to find the ambition to address climate change and the will to work together to put solutions in place. This seems like a fitting call to action for all watersheds experiencing flood damages.
Water Today will be following announcements and development of initiatives in the nation's flood zones and reporting on progress.
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