Ottawa

Governments look to buyouts for flood victims

As the Ottawa River begins to recede after bursting its banks for the second time in two years, politicians are beginning to ask whether it makes sense to allow residents to rebuild in flood-prone areas.

Federal, provincial politicians pondering incentives for residents of flood-prone areas

A man stands on a wall of sandbags protecting a home from flooding in Clarence-Rockland, Ont., east of Ottawa, on April 28. It's the second time in two years the area has been flooded. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As the Ottawa River begins to recede after bursting its banks for the second time in two years, politicians are beginning to ask whether it makes sense to allow residents to rebuild in flood-prone areas.

"The federal government and the provinces and municipalities need to think through very carefully how we prevent ourselves from simply doing the same old thing over and over and over again, and expecting a different result," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters earlier this week after touring flooded areas of Ottawa and Clarence-Rockland.

Clarence-Rockland Mayor Guy Desjardins, wearing a hat, gestures to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale during a tour of flood zones on Thursday. (Antoine Trépanier/Radio-Canada)

Federal and provincial ministers responsible for emergency management have been discussing the growing cost of natural disasters, and how to build infrastructure to better withstand extreme weather, Goodale said.

Quebec's premier has also opened the discussion about offering homeowners financial incentives to move.

FrançoisLegault said his government would compensate homeowners in neighbourhoods such as Pointe-Gatineau up to $100,000 for flood damage, but $200,000 to move to higher, dryer ground.

Could the federal government offer similar incentives?

    "We're not taking anything off the table at this stage," Goodale said.

    Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says all levels of government are responsible for managing flood plains, though Mayor Jim Watson said the City of Ottawa couldn't afford to offer buyouts to residents. 1:02

    The case for buyouts

    Buyouts should be "an essential part of the toolkit" for managing flood risk, according to Daniel Henstra, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo who studies climate change adaptation and emergency management policies.

    "The upfront cost of a buyout program, although high, is undoubtedly less than the long-term costs of repeatedly rebuilding properties in high-risk areas when we know they're going to flood again," Henstra told Ottawa Morning.

    Henstra said the voluntary buyout Quebec is offering is a good start.

    "For many people ... the offer probably won't be enough to cover their mortgage. But I do suspect that many who have been flooded multiple times would jump at the opportunity."

    Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Eli El-Chantiry say some residents of west Ottawa communities hit hard by two floods and a tornado in the last two years are thinking of leaving the area. 1:06

    Alberta offered similar voluntary buyouts after the extensive flooding in 2013, and Henstra said about one-third of eligible homeowners took the province up on the offer.

    For those unwilling to leave, Henstra said governments will need to have "tough conversations" about the conditions under which they're allowed to stay.

    Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale speaks to the media in the flooded Ottawa community of Cumberland while Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, right, listens. (CBC)

    City can't afford buyouts, mayor says

    But Mayor Jim Watson said the City of Ottawa couldn't afford similar buyouts.

    "We wouldn't have the financial means to do it at the city level with property tax dollars," Watson said. 

    We're human. I keep saying my community is the most resilient, but at some point it's a little bit too much.- Coun . Eli El-Chantiry

    Instead, Watson said such a buyout would have to come from the Ontario government.

    "If this is going to happen every couple of years, it's extremely stressful on the families and it's very expensive for governments," Watson said while surveying the flood damage in Fitzroy Harbour earlier this week.

    John Yakabuski, the MPP for Renfew–NipissingPembroke, said those discussions will happen.

    "I think there will be a good opportunity when this disaster has been dealt with," Yakabuski told Ottawa Morning.

    Daniel Henstra is a political science professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in climate change adaptation. 7:49

    Local rules

    In Ottawa, developers aren't allowed to build within the boundaries of a one-in-100-year flood plain, which are mapped by local conservation authorities.

    The story is different for existing homes, which would typically have to be rebuilt on the same footprint, in the same location. Residents affected by the 2017 floods were given special permission to rebuild in such a way that their homes would be safer from future flooding.

    Now, after the second flood in two years and last fall's destructive tornadoes, some west end homeowners are wondering if they should bother trying again.

    Their councillor, Eli El-Chantiry, said some residents have had enough.

    "Sometimes it'll get to people. We're human. I keep saying my community is the most resilient, but at some point it's a little bit too much."

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