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Alberta government doesn't track its biggest disaster risks, auditor general finds

The Alberta government's lack of disaster risk plan could leave it on the hook for rising costs, Alberta’s auditor general has found.

Emergency management agency doesn't know where in province disasters most likely to occur

Alberta lacks a system to track and rank which disasters are most likely to cause significant damage, and where, auditor general Doug Wylie reports. Recent major disasters in Alberta include the 2016 wildfire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government lacks a plan to identify the most pressing disaster risks to the province, Alberta's auditor general has found.

However, the provincial government said a new plan is under construction and should be ready by early 2021.

In a report released Tuesday, auditor general Doug Wylie's office found a provincial patchwork of incomplete information about the potential risks of floods, fires and other potential disasters. He also found Alberta has no ranked list of which disasters present the biggest risks and where the risk is most acute.

The lapse could leave Alberta less prepared than it could be for a major emergency, Wylie said. And Alberta is experiencing more disasters at a higher cost.

"The government may not have the information necessary to identify and fund its highest priorities, and may overlook areas where additional emergency planning or policy-related decisions are required, and it may find itself responding to disasters that could have been avoided or mitigated," the report said.

Disasters caused $329 million in damages between 2003 and 2009, the report notes. That cost was 25 times higher from 2010 to 2016, when disasters prompted $9 billion in damages.

The provincial government shouldered $2.3 billion of that $9 billion, with some reimbursement from the federal government, the report said.

The lack of disaster risk plan could leave the provincial government on the hook for more significant, avoidable costs, the report said.

The auditor also said in tough financial times, it's even more important to spend wisely on disaster prevention to avoid higher costs down the road.

"Obviously, the human suffering is tragic in any situation," Wylie said in an interview. "There's no guarantee that this would necessarily prevent it but certainly, it would go a long way to help the planning, so you're assured you've done the best with the information that you have."

The auditor's report was prepared before the world plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assessment plan stalled in 2016

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) began work on a plan in 2014 to rank risks to Albertans, the report said.

However, discussions were derailed in 2015 when ministries couldn't agree on how the agency had reached some of its conclusions.

Work stopped on the plan in 2016 due to a perceived lack of resources, the report notes. It resumed in September 2019.

Justin Marshall, press secretary for Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, said work on the provincial hazard assessment system was already underway when the auditor's report came out.

"We have always been committed to continuous improvement in assessing and mitigating disaster risks across the province and are already taking action in line with the report's recommendations," he said in an email.

The auditor also said AEMA lacks some of the information it needs to make a comprehensive plan. Although municipalities are required to have a local hazard-assessment plan, nearly a quarter of them don't, and many of the existing plans are incomplete, the auditor found. The City of Edmonton is among those without a plan.

Provincial ministries also have no obligation to identify and share potential disaster information with AEMA, a gap the auditor flags as problematic.

Although the auditor's report describes the work as "stalled" from 2016 to 2019, when the NDP was in government, Edmonton-McClung MLA Lorne Dach disagrees with that characterization.

The NDP's agriculture and forestry critic said when his party formed government in 2015, employees in different ministries had become "siloed" under more than 40 years of Conservative government. He also said the NDP government was grappling with several major public emergencies, such as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and evacuation, and flooding caused by ice jams.

"I think this is something that we were aware of," Dach said. "Obviously, there's more work that needs to be done. And the (auditor general), I think rightfully points out that this is an ongoing issue."

In an interview, Wylie said a 2015 report from his office recommended that a risk assessment should identify where flooding is most likely to occur in Alberta. He said governments have not implemented that recommendation.

Spring flooding caused an estimated $520 million in insured damages this summer in the Fort McMurray area.The provincial government also allotted $147 million for flood disaster relief when ice jams caused floods across northern Alberta.

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