Awash in uncertainty: Perth-Andover awaits costly lift after destructive floods
In 2012, high water sent the northwestern New Brunswick village into a state of emergency
Memories of payloaders driving up and down the streets of Perth-Andover — recovering piles of debris left behind by the flood of 2012 — resurface every spring for residents.
It's been seven years since historic flooding shattered the village of Perth-Andover, about 170 kilometres northwest of Fredericton on the St. John River.
The village of close to 1,600 people is spread along both sides of the river.
And every year, residents wonder if moving ice will jam and clog up the river enough to push the water to 2012 levels.
"People literally had their lives thrown out on the side of the road," said Dan Dionne, chief administrative officer for the village.
"The devastation is one of the big things that sticks out to everyone in the community."
The village declared a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order to about 500 people living in low-lying areas. The flooding closed schools and the Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph Hospital, forcing the transfer of many patients to other hospitals in the area.
The bridge connecting the Perth side of the St. John River with Andover was also closed, and several areas on both sides were under water. The flood caused $25 million damage.
Since the village's first major flood in 1976, at least 100 buildings have been destroyed, and the community is worried severe damage still lies ahead if something isn't done.
"Every flood we end up with more destruction," Dionne said. "It just sort of keeps changing the community."
In an attempt to take control of that change, the village council urged the province to develop a comprehensive adaptation plan after the 2012 flood. As a result, Perth-Andover is one of few communities in the province with a detailed plan to protect itself from future floods.
But it hasn't helped. The former Liberal government failed to implement it and current Premier Blaine Higgs has declared it too expensive.
But those who study flood mitigation say that decision could, itself, be costly because as flood events become more intense and more frequent, the cost of not acting will be even steeper.
When it comes to future flooding, Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor of environment and business with the University of Waterloo's faculty of environment, said mitigation is the best approach.
"There's a perception that the upfront costs of those is quite high," he said. "And that limits governments' willingness to fund them."
But research has found mitigation is "quite cost-effective," Thistlethwaite said.
"So … flood mitigation, taking the actions that you need before the risk materializes, and before the water bursts its banks, is definitely the right approach," he said.
"For every dollar you spend on that type of mitigation, you save anywhere between six to 10 in comparison to the cost of repairing the damage."
Raising Route 105
Measures outlined in Perth-Andover's mitigation plan came with a price-tag of nearly $72 million.
The report called for raising Route 105 and moving the downtown farther away from the river.
The report also recommended building a new bridge that would prevent ice from getting stuck, as happens under the current bridge.
In 2018, the province planned to set aside $19 million to raise the highway — a cost that would've included money from the federal government.
An archeological assessment was done to look at artifacts on Maliseet First Nation land and other studies and surveys were conducted, according to Andrew Harvey, Carleton-Victoria Liberal MLA.
The project was ready to go to tender, he said.
But after the government changed last fall, the Progressive Conservatives under Blaine Higgs cancelled the project, which would have lifted Route 105 above flood level and reconfigured where it met Route 109.
Since then, Harvey said, he has been trying to revive the project. He's already met with Transportation Minister Bill Oliver and Environment Minister Jeff Carr and hopes to meet with Higgs. He would also like the federal government involved in the raising of Route 105.
"These are people's livelihoods and people's safety that are at risk with flooding," Harvey said.
"These floods, it's not a matter of if anymore, it's just a matter of when. What year it's going to flood again."
The village, too, has met with ministers and government departments, but so far, it's received no indication the highway and bridge projects will return.
"Now it's right back to square one," said Dionne. "Basically, you're on your own."
Coreen Enos, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, described the cancellation of the projects as a "pause," necessary while the government tries to get finances in order.
"This has involved making difficult decisions, including the decision to pause the flood mitigation project in Perth-Andover," Enos said in an emailed statement.
"We know there is still work to be done in terms of flood mitigation for the community, and we believe this project is important."
Transportation Minister Bill Oliver would not be interviewed but in the legislature, he said he was aware of the mitigation project.
"We agreed to work with them to make sure that the project that we put forward for Perth-Andover is not only one that is acceptable to the people of the area, but also one that we certainly can afford, and we want to recognize the issues as they are presented," Oliver said.
"We know that we have some infrastructure there that needs to be addressed before we go forward with a complete plan, and we will be looking at that very, very shortly."
Not just a New Brunswick problem
According to Thistlewaite all provinces face sticker shock when it comes to implementing flood mitigation measures. He calls the risk of flooding a national crisis and says it won't go away without special programs.
"New Brunswick is not alone," he said. "There are other provinces that have struggled to fund these types of [mitigation] initiatives."
He cited work being done in Calgary, where the Alberta government recently announced $15 million for two major flood mitigation projects. In Quebec, the government has introduced a program that will offer homeowners financial incentives to move. And in Ontario, politicians are starting to ask whether it makes sense to allow residents to rebuild in flood-prone areas.
While there are some federal programs available to help with mitigation, Thistlethwaite said provinces should be working alongside the federal government to come up with "cost-sharing programs and funding to pay for some of these issues."
"Our national government is missing in action when it comes to prioritizing funding to help support funding to provinces who are stuck making some very difficult decisions."
He says some federal programs actually work against mitigation programs, by providing compensation for flood damage.
"Because we've made disaster assistance available in Canada and we've allowed this history of rebuilding in high-risk areas, there's really no accountability for the planning decisions that have led to a lot of the flood risk over the last 10 years."
Moving businesses to higher ground
After the 2012 flood, the province bought out or relocated more than 60 homes in the Perth-Andover flood zone. Another 10 property owners got some financial assistance for flood-proofing.
"The promise at the time was, 'We'll get people out of harm's way first, and we'll look at the businesses afterwards,'" Dionne said.
The flood also wiped out several businesses along the river, including Thing5, a local call centre, which was the village's largest private employer until it closed later that year.
Businesses didn't get relocation assistance.
At least 100 jobs have been lost since the flood.
"It was painful," said Dean McAllister, holding back tears.
He's the owner of Automotive Village Ltd. and Carquest Auto Parts, a business wedged between Route 105 and the river.
In 2012, his downstairs body shop filled with almost 2½ metres of water "swirling" in paint, oil and gas. He lost inventory and saw $70,000 worth of damage.
The flood caught McAllister, like many residents, off guard. Because he didn't have any flood barricades or a proper plan, McAllister was forced to close his business for four days — something he never thought he'd have to do.
"Once it started, you're just trying to find the quickest way to get open again. You've got employees that are not working.
"You've got obligations financially with businesses when you have loans and all that stuff. You're trying to get going again."
While some businesses remain along Route 105 in Perth-Andover, many have moved to higher ground along the Trans-Canada Highway or closed altogether.
Holes in the downtown
Since the 2012 flood, the village has been urging the province to relocate businesses in the floodplain — another recommendation in the 2016 engineering report.
The program, similar to the residential program, would help about 50 businesses and nonprofit groups move to higher ground.
McAllister would like to move his business but can't afford to on his own.
He's hoping a business relocation program will come into place soon to help the local economy and protect jobs.
If not, he said, it's only a matter of time before the next major flood hits and more businesses close.
"We have huge holes in the downtown," McAllister said. "You might not notice but we notice."