07/30/2013 02:15 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta Flooding 2013: Auditor General To Look At Causes, Response, Lessons

EDMONTON - Alberta's auditor general is looking into how the province responded to last month's record flooding and how it plans to mitigate similar disasters in the future.

"The best use of our resources for Albertans would be to provide independent assurance on the quality of planning and the execution of the government's current flood mitigation efforts," Merwan Saher has written in a letter to the NDP, which asked for a review.

Saher said he will begin his investigation after Premier Alison Redford's government has finished its review on the flooding.

New Democrat Leader Brian Mason earlier this month asked Saher to investigate the government's response, given the province failed to act on key recommendations to prevent flooding following similar problems in 2005.

"The auditor general's investigation ... will be welcomed by all Albertans who are concerned that the government has failed to implement its own (2005) recommendations, and as a result taxpayers may well be on the hook for billions of additional dollars which they wouldn't otherwise be responsible for," Mason told a news conference Tuesday.

Saher's letter was released to the media by the NDP.

The government has pledged an initial $1 billion, along with other programs and services, to help an estimated 100,000 people displaced or affected by high waters that swamped much of southern Alberta June 20 and in the days that followed.

Early estimates on damages are in the billions of dollars.

Heavy flooding in 2005 in the same area prompted the government to order a report by former Progressive Conservative MLA George Groeneveld on how to lessen the impact of future disasters.

The report submitted to the government a year later made 18 recommendations and urged the province to stop allowing development on Crown land in high-risk flood zones.

That was not acted on immediately, although the government has said since the latest flooding that it has or is acting on 13 of Groeneveld's 18 recommendations.

The report was not released until late last year.

Mason said he would like to see Saher determine specifically what was done to implement the Groeneveld recommendations and what the true dollar cost is to Albertans for flood prevention measures not taken.

"The government has attempted to portray themselves as effective responders to the flood, and they are also attempting to downplay the recommendations in the Groeneveld report and their failure to act on them."

Saher declined comment on the letter, but a spokesman for his office, Lori Trudgeon, said while the review will focus on current mitigation efforts, it won't rule out an examination of how floods were handled in the past.

Earlier this month, Redford's government announced new rules for construction in high-risk areas. People with damaged homes will be taken care of this time, but will not be covered in future if they choose to rebuild in risky zones.

Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said the government welcomes Saher's investigation, but he disagreed with Mason that the province failed residents following the 2005 floods.

Most of the homes built in harm's way were constructed well before 2005, Griffiths said, and the unprecedented amount of rainfall in a short time span that set rivers to raging this time could not have been reasonably anticipated.

"This has got to be one of the rarest events we've ever had in Alberta," said Griffiths.

"It's very easy to look back and say, 'You should have done more,' but I don't recall one single time Mr. Mason standing up in the last six or seven years saying, 'Direct tax dollars from health care to spend on flood mitigation.'"

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