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Canadian cities received an uninspiring grade on flood preparedness, the costliest type of natural disaster, as profiled in a recently completed new national study.  Conducted by the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, the study showed that many cities have made little progress to limit their risk of flooding over the past five years.  In a survey of 16 municipalities, cities scored an average C+ in flood-readiness in 2019/20 — the same score that a near-identical study found in 2015 (see Figure 1).

The general lack of readiness means that if a large-scale flooding event were to occur, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact on Canadians could be catastrophic.  Many Canadian homeowners and renters could find themselves in harm’s way with a basement full of sewer water and no means to engage emergency workers to provide aid in restoration.  In turn, without remedy, flooding could literally force residents from their homes.

The flood scores of municipalities were quantified based on interviews with 53 municipal officers – each of whom collated responses from an additional 3-5 flood risk related experts – responsible for managing floods and emergency services across the 16 largest municipalities.  Respondents included representatives of municipal governments such as city managers, directors and senior planners, emergency workers (e.g., police, fire, and ambulance services) and in some cases public utilities and conservation authorities who had relevant expertise.  A score of “A” constituted a high state of flood preparedness, “E” reflected low preparedness, and with good, significant and incipient states of preparedness denoted as “B”, “C” and “D”, respectively.

Notable amongst the study’s key findings were the following points:

  • Six cities—including some that experienced severe floods in recent years—were slightly less prepared for flooding in 2019/20 than they were in 2015.  This included such notable cities as Calgary and Montreal.
  • According to municipal managers, comprehensive and up-to-date flood maps, supported by funding from Public Safety Canada, should be mandatory for a city to qualify for federal flood-recovery aid.
  • Only one-half of the 16 cities reviewed assess the potential for municipal stormwater to back up into basements, even though basement flooding remains the No. 1 catastrophic cost to homeowners and insurers.

Municipal officers repeatedly warned that cities must do a better job of preparing for floods, or risk worsening events in the wake of more intense storms driven by climate change, loss of natural infrastructure in both urban and sub-urban settings, and aging municipal and housing infrastructure.

Some positive news emerged from the study.  Edmonton, Regina, and Toronto improved their flood-preparedness scores, each achieving a B+, primarily for protecting health-care facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes.  These cities also put in place measures to maintain continuity of electricity, telecommunications, water, and wastewater services during floods.  Edmonton also provides free flood-risk assessments for homeowners through its municipally owned utility, EPCOR.  It is the only city to do so of 16 cities examined.

As suggested by Veronica Scotti, Chairperson Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re and Intact Centre Advisory Council member, “flood-readiness is key to societal resilience – by learning from one another, these cities could make much-needed progress on climate resilience. This would include maintaining a city-level risk management framework and outcome-oriented adaptation plans.”

Last year, insurable losses in Canada reached $2.5 billion, making 2020 the fourth-worst year for insurable claims since record keeping began in 1983. With flood risk on the rise – and in the wake of irreversible climate change – all cities should self-examine to reduce their flood risk vulnerability.  Recognizing that $1 invested in flood risk mitigation provides $3-8 in avoided losses per ten-year period, the ROI of preparedness should prove attractive to all municipalities.

N/A indicates cities that did not participate in the 2015 study

Head, Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, University of Waterloo
About Dr. Blair: Dr. Blair Feltmate is Head, Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, University of Waterloo. He is on several boards, including: Sustainable Finance Committee, Global Risk Institute; Advisory Panel on Climate Change, Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Ontario; and he is past Chair, Federal Government of Canada Expert Panel on Climate Adaptation and Resilience Results. Dr. Feltmate was previously Vice President, Sustainable Development, Bank of Montreal, and Director, Sustainable Development, Ontario Power Generation.