Fire and flood: the challenges of rebuilding in Fort McMurray's most flood prone-neighbourhood

After the spring wildfire all but wiped out the Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Waterways, flooding concerns have emerged as the issue which may hamper redevelopment of the community.

A removable levee, land swaps, could solve redevelopment problems for homeowners

Crews begin to work on the burned out remains of the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray after wildfires forced the evacuation of the city. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

After the spring wildfire all but wiped out the Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Waterways, flooding concerns have emerged as the issue which may hamper redevelopment of the community.

Much of the neighbourhood, one of the city's oldest, is located within a floodplain, and existing bylaws around flood mitigation may stall reconstruction.

The municipality is hopeful a "demountable flood wall" — a temporary levee which would protect the community from seasonal flooding and ice jams — can solve the problem of rebuilding in the low-lying area.

Mayor Melissa Blake has sent letters to Minister of Municipal Affairs Danielle Larivee and Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips outlining the proposal.

The municipality is asking the province to allow residents to rebuild using pre-existing construction standards on their existing properties.  

It also wants a guarantee from the province that residents will remain eligible for disaster recovery program assistance in the event a flood occurs before the wall is in place.

Current municipal bylaws state that all development within the floodplain, which includes Waterways and large swaths of the downtown core, must be built to a one-in-100-year standard.

'The rebuild is not a choice' 

When a wildfire raged through Fort McMurray in May, forcing the entire city to evacuate,  Waterways was among the areas hardest hit. Of the properties destroyed,134 were located inside the flood hazard area. An additional 30 homes still standing inside the flood hazard area have been deemed unsafe due to toxic smoke damage.

"The flood mitigation plan was on track, however the wildfire has introduced a new time-sensitive factor," said Erin O'Neill, Recovery Branch Lead with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, during a public engagement session with residents Thursday. 

"The change (to) the land-use bylaw that requires additional flood-proofing was only meant to be applied to new developments when we approved it in 2013. This was seen as realistic as the builder would understand the flood-proofing requirements prior to choosing to construct a new building.

"But given that the rebuild is not a choice for residents, this bylaw would now require a significant out-of-pocket expense, which is not covered by most insurance policies."

The building restrictions were brought in following the floods of 2013 and the passing of Bill 27, the Alberta Flood Recovery and Reconstruction Act.

However, the legislation has not been enacted yet, leaving an opportunity for the province to grant an exemption for Waterways.

If the province provides the necessary assurances, then residents within the most flood-prone areas will be given the green-light to rebuild, without any added construction requirements.

"Waterways needs to be preserved. It's a beautiful community," said Brad Thistle, who lost his Waterways home in the wildfire.

"I had choices when I bought my home Fort McMurray. I could have lived anywhere in this city and I chose Waterways for a reason."

"It's where Fort McMurray started. It's a community that's very tight-knit."

Land swap 

As the community waits for a response from the province, municipal administration is asking residents of the south-side neighbourhood to provide feedback on three strategies which would allow for rebuild.

The first involves the flood mitigation measures, but the other two options under consideration would involve land-swapping.

Residents may be offered an internal land swap, that would allow landowners to exchange property within the flood hazard area for properties on higher ground, but still within the Waterways neighbourhood.

An external land swap is also under consideration by administration. This would allow homeowners to acquire non-flood prone property in city's newly developed neighbourhoods on the northern edge of town, such as North Parsons or Saline Creek.

"We've been hearing from residents thus far that they would like to rebuild in Waterways," said O'Neill.

"That being said, we would like to hear from you and confirm that we're on the right path." 

The municipality, which expects a response from the province by the end of September, will continue to hold public engagement sessions with neighbourhood residents throughout the fall.

"People want to rebuild," said Thistle.

"People want to be there….I think when it comes down to hard facts, people are slowly regaining positivity that they will rebuild there. They just need to break down the barriers with our governments."
A municipal mapping outlining the flood zones in Fort McMurray's Waterways neighourhood. (CBC Edmonton )