CALGARY - Alberta's Opposition leader has rebuked the governing Tories for their "failure" to prevent widespread damage in recent flooding while offering her party's own remedies to reduce risks.
Danielle Smith's Wildrose party is making 22 recommendations to compensate current victims and to reduce damage in the future. One suggestion would allow the vast majority of residents and businesses affected by last month’s flooding to stay and rebuild.
Smith said the government could have prevented much of the damage wrought by high water in affected communities, but failed to act.
“The failure of the provincial government to heed repeated warnings and properly prepare for severe flooding has resulted in far more damage and hardship than was necessary,” she said Thursday at a news conference in a Calgary neighbourhood.
A Tory cabinet minister said officials who have been working on a flood mitigation plan in High River told him “there is nothing that they could have done that would have prevented the damage.”
Rick Fraser, associate minister of recovery and reconstruction of High River, acknowledged that work is ongoing to uncover what caused the major deluge that left many people homeless in last month’s flood.
“I think it’s pointless at this point, particularly when we’re trying to help people, to be laying blame,” he said in a telephone interview. “There will be lots of time for that further down the road when we understand everything.”
At the same time that the Wildrose released its recommendations for flood control, the government outlined its plan to support rebuilding efforts. It is leaving it up to municipal governments and First Nations to continue leading recovery efforts, while the province oversees and organizes the work.
Regional co-ordinators in each of the affected communities are to address four key recovery aspects. The goals include supporting flood victims, nurturing economic growth, restoring infrastructure and re-establishing and protecting the environment.
The recovery framework is intended as a guide for intermediate and long-term efforts.
Smith said the province should have acted sooner. She said the Progressive Conservatives didn't implement much of a 2006 flood report, which recommended that the government designate flood-prone areas and notify property buyers about the risks. She also said the government allowed extensive development in known floodplains without reducing the risks.
Fraser disputed Smith’s claims, saying the provincial government has implemented many of the report’s recommendations and will continue to make improvements.
“We’re willing to listen to anybody who has suggestions,” he said. “The one thing that I would say that’s maybe a little bit disappointing — High River and many of these places are still under local states of emergency and we’re already talking about a report when there is still work on the ground that needs to be done.”
Smith also said a top priority to minimize future damage should be an independent engineering study that would identify where ditches, culverts, berms and spillways could be used to guide high waters to areas where they would do the least damage. Such measures could reduce the number of people who would have to relocate to safer areas now, the Opposition leader suggested.
The government has already said it will introduce legislation this fall that would ban new development in floodplains. It has said it will provide assistance this time to those who choose to rebuild in the riskiest areas, but will not provide any compensation for future flood damage in those zones.
It would continue to provide relief to residents and businesses in the so-called flood fringe, where the risks are lower, but only if municipalities took steps to mitigate risks.
Smith said the onus should be on the provincial government to mitigate the risks.
“We think it’s premature to be asking homeowners to move and relocate out of areas before the government does its basic job,” she said. “(Building) flood mitigation infrastructure is a basic job of government. It’s something they should have done years ago, decades ago, and they failed to do it.”
Another big difference between the two plans is that the Wildrose party would not provide any assistance to homeowners who want to rebuild now in the most high-risk areas, but would extend relief to those who want to relocate.
“It is very difficult to justify government paying for the rebuilding of homes and businesses in dangerous locations that cannot be protected with improved flood mitigation infrastructure,” said Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson.
The Opposition also said it would cap the amount of funding it would provide to residents and business owners rebuilding after a flood. Anderson would not disclose a dollar figure, but said the compensation program would pay for the reconstruction of an average-priced home.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths' office did not respond to requests for comment.
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