How you (and your town or city) can prepare for the next flood
From urban design to better building rules: things are already changing after historic 2018 flood
Listen to "Preparing for the next devastating flood," the fifth episode of The Hook, a podcast from CBC New Brunswick. You can listen to the full episode by clicking on the CBC Podcasts page or by subscribing in iTunes.
Hey there, New Brunswick. You OK?
We know you've been having a hard time lately.
Do you want the good news about flooding first, or the bad news?
Let's start with the good news. The record-smashing water levels during this year's spring freshet have pushed New Brunswick to start preparing better for rising water levels.
Homeowners, the province, and individual municipalities are already revisiting building regulations, urban design, and flood-proofing measures to prevent the damage from being as severe next time.
Now for the bad news.
There's definitely going to be a next time — and it could be sooner rather than later.
More frequent, more costly
In its 2014 report on flood-proofing, the New Brunswick government said that both anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that climate change is "affecting the frequency and severity of New Brunswick floods," as well as noting "a general upward trend in both the number of documented flood events and the cost of damage resulting from flooding in New Brunswick."
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Four years ago, the costs of flood damage to individuals and governments were estimated conservatively at half a billion dollars, not counting the cost of the disruptions flooding caused to society and the provincial economy. After this year's event, that number will be much, much higher.
As the province moves out of crisis mode, urban planners, not-for-profits and government officials are starting to look at the big picture of flood mitigation. Part of that, according to Michael Sullivan, means looking at what other jurisdictions are doing right.
Sullivan is a land-use development planning specialist based in Niagara Falls, Ont. He suggested New Brunswick could learn a lot from British Columbia, where local governments are required to consider guidelines for management of flood area land use when designating floodplains. Provincial officers who regulate subdivision development in B.C. must consider flood hazards as part of the subdivision approval process.
"You have to know what affects your community and how before you can address it," Sullivan said.
Municipalities plan ahead
In New Brunswick, a lot of people and agencies are trying to find out precisely that.
One of them is the Atlantic Coastal Action Program, a not-for-profit that works on environmental management programs around coastlines and wetlands.
ACAP was recently engaged by the Climate Change secretariat branch of the province's Department of Environment and Local Government to write a plan for the City of Saint John about climate change and other factors that contribute to flooding.
"It's something we do have to start to consider more as we look at what are the projections for our province with climate change upcoming, and increased pressures on rural and suburban development," said executive director Graeme Stewart-Robertson.
"There's a lot that can be done when it comes to zoning regulations: the minimum heights of buildings, whether it's picking a baseline and saying, 'the habitable portion of a building can't be below this level' ... That doesn't mean that you can't build close to the water, but it means all your living space has to be up above that."
We have to be prepared for some real changes to the way we've been living as a society in New Brunswick for the the past 100, or 200 years.- Graeme Stewart-Robertson, ACAP Saint John
Stewart-Robertson also anticipates New Brunswick will tighten the regulations "restricting development close to rivers, lakes, and waterfront areas. We have minimum setbacks now, but they've quite often been loosely enforced or perhaps are inadequate."
"We have to be prepared for some real changes to the way we've been living as a society in New Brunswick for the past 100, or 200 years," he said.
Changes to land use regulations take time to introduce. In the meantime, individual homeowners have to make their own decisions about whether to rebuild after a flood, and how to do it safely.
Among them are Jonathon Rasenberg and his partner, Melissa Roy.
Their 70-year-old home on the Kennebecasis River was submerged in about two metres of water in the first few weeks of May.
Basically, everything on the lower level, from the electrical panel to the furnace and the hot water tank, is soaked and dirty.
On top of that, there's a complete mess of river debris stretching for more than 3½ metres across the front yard.
"It looks like mayhem, like a disaster," Rasenberg said. "Soon as we've got enough money, we're going to build a new house."
He and Roy, he said, have some tough decisions to make.
"Should we just tear it down and build a new one, or do we make it liveable enough again to live in it for a while? That's what we've been trying to figure out," he said.
According to one estimator, remediation for an average basement costs between $8,000 and $15,000, depending on the square footage and the type of water.
When they do rebuild, he said, "our plan with the new house is to raise the whole thing three or four feet up and build a retaining wall around it."
For sale: waterfront property
Some homeowners, tired of all this, are hoping the province will buy out their flood-prone properties.
It wouldn't be unprecedented. In 2014, the government paid out $8 million to cover relocation and flood-proofing costs in Perth-Andover, where 80 low-lying homes were either demolished or relocated.
There's no indication that's going to happen this time — except on Darling's Island, where negotiations are expected to start soon over some properties that need to be levelled in order to raise up the road.
Permanent flood-proofing measures — like a berm or retaining wall or redesigning your basement, so that it can handle water — can all help reduce damage on your property.
But there's only one 100 per cent fool-proof way to avoid it altogether: pack up and move totally out of the flood zone.
When they do rebuild, Rasenberg said, "we're definitely planning on building it higher than we were planning on building it two weeks ago. Definitely for sure, no doubt about it."
"It might be another 30 years before the water goes that high again," he said.
"But it might be two years. We don't know."