Experts urge caution before rebuilding on floodplain

As property owners living near the Ottawa River assess the flood damage to their homes and cottages, some experts are urging them to think twice before rebuilding in the same spot.

Water engineers question wisdom of renovating or rebuilding homes in flood-prone areas

Gilles Leroux has owned this three-bedroom cottage on the Ottawa River, seen on May 8, 2017, for the past 17 years. He's ineligible for disaster relief because the cottage is not his primary residence. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

As property owners living near the Ottawa River assess the flood damage to their homes and cottages, some experts are urging them to think twice before rebuilding in the same spot.

Some of the homes within the affected flood zones were built long before the current rules were in place that require flood-proof construction measures, such as building with no basements or using fill to elevate a home above the flood line.

John Price, water resources engineer at the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, said people and planners should be paying close attention to current flood mapping.

Flood victim in Constance Bay. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)
In the case of the Mississippi Valley, which includes the flooded areas of Constance Bay, the maps were updated in 2015 and are available online.

"Any time that you have an emergency situation, it's always an opportunity to pause and reflect on the policies you have," said Price. "Probably it should occur in this case as well."

This map shows a portion of the flood plain for the Ottawa River as it flows through west Ottawa. (Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority)
But some flood victims, busy cleaning up their riverside homes that are contaminated by filthy water, don't even want to hear about moving.

"I never want to move," said Ruth McKlusky from Constance Bay. "It really hurts when I hear these comments … 'Should people be compensated in a floodplain?' I bought this place in good faith. It was built in the '70s. To me, with comments like that, is like kicking somebody when you're down."

But Glenn McGillivray, from the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, said while his heart goes out to the flood victims, what's needed right now is "tough love."

McGillivray points to action taken after other historic floods such as Hurricane Hazel that hit Toronto in 1954.

"We have to look at the buy-outs that took place in the Toronto area," said McGillivray. "We turned the neighbourhoods into parkland and now those parks flood … This is the type of thing we have to do. They're not easy decisions, but something has to change." 

The flooding in Constance Bay feels like 'watching someone drown and you can't swim,' said Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, who represents the neighbourhood. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
While West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry said right now his focus is on helping the people in his ward deal with the flood's aftermath, he knows that lessons should be learned.

"Some people say, 'Oh, it only happens every 20, 30 years, 100 years, so that means it's going to happen again,'" said El-Chantiry. "Maybe we need to review."

According to Colin Rennie, hydrologist and chair of the civil engineering department at the University of Ottawa, policies already exist in Ontario to prevent flooding — including rules that limit building on a floodplain. Rennie said these policies just need to be followed more vigorously.

Colin Rennie, a hydrology expert, is chair of the Civil Engineering department at the University of Ottawa. (CBC)
Planning policies have been developed based on a probability of a one-in-100-year flood event. That means there's a one-per-cent chance of a flood in any given year on a floodplain.

Rennie calculated that for homes in a floodplain, there's almost a 50 per-cent chance "of the house being flooded within those 50 years, which to me says it's pretty likely to happen."

And of course, there's no guarantee that if your home is flooded one year, it won't also flood the next. 

Mayor wouldn't prohibit rebuilding

Mayor Jim Watson noted last week that every municipality that has been flooded will have to re-examine what it allows and doesn't allow in terms of construction on floodplains. But the mayor stopped short of commenting on whether some people will be prohibited from rebuilding.

"I don't know what authority we have on that front," he told reporters last year. "People own the property, they have the right to, I assume, build to the same footprint based on conservation authority and city and provincial rules … Not sure you can take someone's right away if they're willing to build back in the situation.

"That's a decision they're making."


Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at