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University of Waterloo study reviews 15 cities’ flood preparations


A study by Dr. Blair Feltmate of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment was released on May 22 that measures how well 15 cities across Canada are prepared for a major flood. The research was based on the input of 60 city officials between January and April this year.

Of the 15 cities scored, eight of them had suffered severe rainstorms in the last 10 years, including three (Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal) that had seen 1-in-100 or 1-in-200 year events.

Beyond providing a score for each city’s current preparedness, the study is intended to motivate cities to increase their resilience against flood events, and to provide a benchmark for their efforts. It covers a wide range of infrastructure and services, everything from transportation infrastructure, to commercial real estate, to electricity, telecommunications and even food and banking. For each are it gives “select accomplishments” and “areas of challenge.”

“Flooding is by far the most common type of natural disaster in Canada, and there is a wide range of actions that can be taken to build a city’s resilience to its destructive force,” said Kathy Bardswick, president and CEO of The Co-operators insurance company which commissioned the study.

The only city that scored an A in the study was Ottawa, followed by Winnipeg, Calgary, St. John’s, Toronto and Montreal with Bs. Mississauga, Edmonton, Fredericton, Whitehorse, Charlottetown, Quebec City, Regina and Vancouver all got Cs. Halifax was least prepared, with a D.

On the positive side, the study found that many of the cities were doing well in developing up-to-date flood plain maps and integrating flood risks in land use planning. They are using this information to develop regulations for governing the placement of infrastructure.

Eight of the cities had also established formal programs for urban drainage. Vancouver, for example, has nearly completed an integrated storm water management plan which will recommend green infrastructure on public and private land.

Most cities also showed progress in installing backwater valves in new home basements, although it was felt that citizens needed to be better informed about what services available.

The biggest problems that emerged in the study were that city officials believed that many aspects of flood response lie outside a city’s responsibility, and instead belong to third parties such as other government bodies, utilities or private corporations.

The report gives several examples:

“Toronto … indicated that transportation is under a multi-jurisdictional mandate for which responsibility extends beyond the city (e.g., 400 series highways are a Province of Ontario responsibility, Pearson International Airport is federally regulated, etc.);

Vancouver … indicated that electricity generation/transmission is under the authority of the Province of British Columbia (BC Hydro);

Halifax … indicated that storm water sewer systems are under the management of Halifax Water, whereas water courses (streams, rivers, etc.) are under the direction of the Province of Nova Scotia’s Environment Department.”

Also, various cities advised that they did not have the authority to direct the flood preparedness of private/public entities such as food suppliers, telecommunications companies and banking services. But the report notes that in a flood situation these are essential services.”

And even though the service might lie outside the city’s jurisdiction, the report notes: “When systems break down during or following a flood, it will be mayors, first and foremost, who will be held accountable for non-preparedness — or conversely, who will receive accolades for preparedness.”

The first recommendation is that mayors should create forums for different organizations to address flood preparedness, regardless of the jurisdictional authority.

The report also recommends creating a shortlist of priority concerns “rather than developing long lists of all possible scenarios.” The city officials said that studies that are too detailed “often devolved into the relentless pursuit of meaningless perfection — resulting in what is colloquially referred to as analysis paralysis.”

The report is prepared as part of the Partners for Action (P4A) applied research network at the University of Waterloo, which was co-founded by The Co-operators and Farm Mutual Reinsurance Plan.

To read the University of Waterloo press release, click here.

To read the report, click here.