Flooding In Canada Is A Big Problem, But Few Canadians Know They're At Risk: Study

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It’s hard not to sympathize with flood victims, but a number of Canadians still think that such a devastating event could never happen to them.

Nearly all of the 2,300 people surveyed for a new University of Waterloo study did not know or weren't sure that they lived in a designated flood risk area. Almost 90 per cent were unaware that their home was in an area vulnerable to flooding.

Half of them said they weren't worried about it happening either.

That lack of awareness is a problem, according to the researchers.

Canada has seen about 80 flood events since 2000, and related costs are going up.

high river floods
Houses and a golf course are surrounded by flood water in High River, Alta., June 23, 2013.

Development in flood-prone areas is a contributing factor, as are shifting weather patterns, more people living in basements, and outdated dams, dikes and stormwater infrastructure.

Canadians personally shoulder about $600 million each year in losses related to flooding.

“It is Canada’s most common and costly natural hazard,” the researchers wrote.

It’s not yet known how much flood damage in Quebec will cost after thousands of people were forced from their homes, but other past catastrophes weren’t cheap.

The 2013 floods in Alberta, considered the priciest disaster in Canadian history, cost more than $6 billion.

flooded home quebec
Jean-Francois Perrault (C) and Julie Theriault (L) move mattresses from a home in a flooded residential area in Gatineau, Que., May 7.

Floods also have social implications — physical and mental health issues, job loss and family disruption.

But while 83 per cent of respondents in the study said they thought they had a responsibility to protect their property, less than a third of them used flood protection measures like sump pumps, rain barrels or water-resistant materials in the basement.

And half said they weren’t interested in buying overland flood insurance.

“Canadians’ self-assessment of flood risk does not align with actual risk,” the authors wrote.

Feds set to help less with disaster relief

And what Canadians might not know is that the federal government is trying to offload more responsibility for dealing with the issue onto them.

The Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program, which gives provinces and territories financial help, can't continue doling out the amount that it does, a Parliamentary Budget Office report found last year. While the budget for the program isn’t expected to grow, costs are continuing to do so.

As a result, the feds have invested money in flood mitigation, but are also upping the thresholds that provinces and territories must meet to receive money, according to the University of Waterloo study. Several private insurance companies also now offer flood insurance, so some provinces now tell their residents that flooding doesn’t qualify for disaster help.

“These changes could have serious implications for Canadians," the study authors wrote. "By reducing the availability of disaster assistance and tightening the eligibility to receive it, the federal and provincial governments have shifted more financial liability and responsibility to homeowners."

calgary floods
Cody Scott throws food away from a freezer trapped in a flooded basement in the Elbow Park area of Calgary, Alta., June 22, 2013.

But as they note, governments, realtors and insurers also have an obligation to make sure people know they’re at risk in the first place and what to do. Only a quarter of the study respondents said they’d been approached about flood insurance.

More than 90 per cent agreed that flood risk maps should be public. Roughly the same number also agreed that home sellers should be required to tell buyers about potential risk if it's in a designated flood risk area and wanted to know whether their home was in one.

“Homeowners can’t afford to remain in the dark about their options and responsibilities,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, a study co-author and University of Waterloo assistant professor, in a press release.

And the need for people to be aware will only grow. While recent floods have been devastating, things may only get worse, if climate change has anything to say about it.

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