Changes to disaster recovery program could have 'terrifying' consequences for Albertans, reeve says

Changes coming to the Disaster Recovery Program are "another example" of the provincial government hurting the Fort McMurray region, says the mayor of Alberta's oilsands capital.  

Mayor Don Scott says these changes are 'another example of the provincial government screwing this region'

After the hamlet of Marten Beach flooded on July 25, 2019, the water left a muddy mess in its wake. (Caroline Wagenaar)

Changes coming to the Disaster Recovery Program are "another example" of the provincial government hurting the Fort McMurray region, says the mayor of Alberta's oilsands capital. 

Starting April 1, the province will introduce a 90/10 split on cost sharing for disaster relief between the province and municipalities, private companies and Métis settlements.

The changes are "another example of the provincial government screwing this region," said Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. "This time it's a lot more than just this region because these changes affect every Albertan." 

 The funding is intended to cover "uninsurable" losses. During the 2020 flood in Fort McMurray, for example, some homeowners weren't able to get flood insurance because companies won't offer it in a flood zone. So the DRP program covers gaps like that. The changes will also introduce a $500,000 funding limit per homeowner, said Mckenzie Kibler, press secretary for Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver.

Homeowners can only access disaster relief funding once for each property, even if previous assistance was under $500,000, Kibler said in an email. Emergency evacuation payments will also change, and will only be provided when there is a mandatory evacuation during an uninsurable disaster. The payments will be $625 per adult and $300 for dependents. 

"By incentivizing municipalities and homeowners to improve risk management we hope to start a conversation on the best ways to reduce the financial and human costs of disasters in Alberta," Kibler said. 

Fort McMurray has had two major disasters in the past five years: the Horse River wildfire in 2016 caused almost $9 billion in damage; and flooding in April 2020 caused $520 million in insured damage. 

Kibler said the changes will help align Alberta's disaster recovery program with those of other provinces.

But Scott said it's "absurd" to compare disaster response in Alberta to the rest of Canada, because the province has had more disasters historically.

"You need policies that are realistic to the province you're managing," said Scott. 

The Horse River wildfire in 2016 caused $9 billion in damage. (Terry Reith/CBC)

The mayor said he was never consulted about the changes and received a phone call informing him they were coming. 

"You don't just download these policies on people and expect them to be able to adjust their lives and their funding immediately," he said.

If the municipality is responsible for 10 per cent of the funding, Scott said, there will be less money available or municipalities will have to collect more from residents. 

"It's going to download costs to local governments and to homeowners," Scott said in an interview on Thursday. 

He also noted the "horrific" timing of the news, pointing to the pandemic, flood recovery and the downturn in the economy.

"Residents of our region and throughout Alberta should be furious with this government," he said.

The changes are also concerning for some residents in Marten Beach, Alta., which had two floods in 13 months. 

Lesser Slave River Reeve Murray Kerik said he's worried about what the changes will do to home values in the area. 

He said anybody buying property will likely look at those that have already used disaster relief funding, making home values drop. 

"The long-term implications are a lot more than we realize," said Kerik. "It's kind of a little bit terrifying." 

The hamlet of Martin Beach was evacuated on July 25; the order was lifted on Thursday. (Caroline Wagenaar)

He said he's also concerned about the $500,000 cap, because some homes in Marten Beach are worth about $1 million.

"I don't want to see a bunch of people that all of a sudden have homes that they can't sell, or if they can sell it for dimes on the dollar," said Kerik. 

He said in the long run it would be better to put money toward moving people out of flood zones by offering land swaps. 

"In the long run that would be the real solution," he said.

Randy Elm, president of the Marten Beach Cottager's Society, said residents in the area have struggled to get disaster relief funding after floods. Some residents are still out of their homes, he said, and are having trouble getting money from insurance after the second flood. 

He said Marten Beach put together a flood committee and brought in an engineer to design flood mitigation, which would cost almost $6 million. 

"Last year we were inches away from another flood," he said.

"When you hear cutbacks on provincial programs like that, it kind of makes you wonder where the  priorities are."