Fort McMurray flood plan approved but uncertainty still lingers with residents

Wood Buffalo municipal council has approved a flood plan for Waterways and the lower downtown, but some residents say it provides little assurance.

Municipality will design and build a flood wall for Waterways and downtown areas

Several creeks and rivers flow through or nearby the Fort McMurray subdivision of Waterways. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Although the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has cleared another hurdle towards rebuilding after the Fort McMurray wildfire, some residents of the Waterways neighbourhood remain skeptical about whether it's worth it.

On Tuesday night, council voted to design and build a flood wall that would shelter Waterways and Fort McMurray's downtown area, which also sits on a floodplain, from an extreme flood.

Mike Marchand attended the meeting, but after enduring two floods and the wildfire in May, he's not convinced he should invest money and emotion into rebuilding his two homes in Waterways.

One of Canada's top hydrologists has also criticized the decision to allow people to rebuild on known flood plains in Fort McMurray.

"I won't rebuild until [a flood wall] is actually in place," Marchand said. "I can't do anything until [the flood wall] is actually in place."

Waterways is one of Fort McMurray's oldest communities. Historically, it has been susceptible to natural disasters.

May's wildfire ravaged the Fort McMurray subdivision, which has a mixture of mobile homes, trailers and multi-storey structures.

Before that, it's seen floods as recently as 2013 and 1997.

In October, council changed its building codes so residents could rebuild in Waterways the way their houses were before the wildfire. Without the bylaw amendment, residents would have had to "floodproof" their homes, according to today's strict standards. That would have meant some homes would never be rebuilt in Waterways.

The province has assured the municipality it would receive disaster relief program funding in the event of a severe flood, providing it had a viable flood plan.

The municipality surveyed residents and found most wanted to rebuild in Waterways, but some preferred alternatives to rebuilding — such as having the municipality offer to buy their land, or swapping their property for a location that wasn't in a flood zone.

Mike Marchand has lived in Waterways for more than three decades. He lost two homes in May's wildfire. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Residents remain wary

Council approved the design of that flood plan on Tuesday, but because of cost concerns, it rejected the requests from some residents that the municipality should purchase their land or offer a land swap.

Marchand said he would have preferred a buyout, but is still glad the municipality will move forward with flood prevention.

He said he won't commit to rebuilding until he sees cement trucks building the flood wall.

"I'd like to see the whole of downtown protected, particularly Waterways," he said. "This should have been done a long time ago."

Fellow Waterways homeowner Tom Holland slammed council for waiting so long to consider flood mitigation, even though he said it knew about the risks for years.

He also said he didn't have much confidence in municipal council to build a flood wall after years of overlooking his community.

"Too many unknowns regarding this flood wall and a poor history to ensure infrastructure is up to par," Holland said.

"The flood wall idea doesn't seem to hold much weight."

The municipality estimates the flood prevention plan for Waterways and downtown Fort McMurray will cost about $170 million.

Wood Buffalo municipal council voted Tuesday night to design and build a flood wall that would protect Waterways and downtown Fort McMurray from severe flooding. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

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