Provincial disaster relief may leave scores wanting following Windsor-Essex flooding

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens has asked the province to evaluate if widespread flooding in the city qualifies for Disaster Recovery Assistance. But last year, when thousands of homes were soaked, scores of relief claims were denied and scores more have yet to be dealt with.

Almost 3,500 homes were flooded after two days of record-breaking rain

Water bubbles up from a blown manhole cover during flooding in east Windsor on Aug. 29, 2017. (Lynn Baker/Submitted Photo)

Even if the province agrees to provide disaster relief assistance in the wake of the widespread flooding that hammered Windsor and Essex County this week, scores of homeowners aren't likely to qualify for funding and scores more may face lengthy waits.

Of the 583 homeowners who asked for help under the program last September, when thousands of homes were flooded after the region was drenched with 190 millimetres of rain, only 122 claims were paid out for a total of $665,656.43. Another 235 claims were denied after an assessment by an inspector, while another 226 claims remain bogged down in the system. It is unclear how many will be approved or when.

Mayor Drew Dilkens asked the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing Wednesday to assess whether flooding damage to nearly 3,500 homes across the region this week was significant enough to again trigger the Disaster Recovery Assistance program. 

The number of residents reporting flooded basements to the city's 311 line rose steadily throughout the day Wednesday, rolling over the 2,688 mark about 3:45 p.m. That number may yet rise. More than 400 basements were flooded in Lakeshore and about 105 basements were flooded in Tecumseh, while 20 more were hit in LaSalle.

Minister Bill Mauro confirmed he had spoken with the mayor and said he expects a team to be on the ground in the next few days, or early next week.

"They will be waiting to get an inventory of data back from affected municipalities so when they do visit they'll know where to go and what the parameters of the damage as provided by municipalities is," said Mauro.

Torrential downpours the 'new normal'

The program is meant to help people affected by natural disasters by providing some funds to cover essential property. It covers overland flooding but it does not cover damage caused by sewer backups, except for low-income households.

"It is an opportunity for those who don't have insurance or don't have enough insurance for these type of events to be able to get some funding to get their basements and their lives back together," said Dilkens.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens answers questions during a press conference after heavy rainfalls led to widespread flooding in parts of the city. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Mauro said heavy rains causing flooding are becoming the "new normal" across Ontario and added it's up to municipalities to take steps to be proactive when it comes to protecting their residents.

"Clearly, as municipalities find themselves in the path of these storms, it's going to be more important for them to do what they can from a mitigation perspective to limit damage," he said.

Lakeshore Mayor Tom Bain said his municipality's drainage system was built to handle a "one-in-100 year storm," but with record-breaking weather events dousing the region in consecutive years it may be time to reevaluate.

"We've got to go back now and see if we need to change that design system," he conceded.

Mark Winterton, Windsor's chief engineer, said the city has about $3-billion worth of drainage infrastructure in the ground, but that some of the pipes are more than 100 years old.

"We've done a tremendous job of putting the money towards basement flooding," he said. "Sewers aren't designed for that kind of rain. Simply put, the pipe is not big enough to handle the water."

LaSalle credits drain system for limited flooding

One place where drainage does seem to be doing its job is LaSalle. The town was hit hardest, with an estimated 290 millimetres of rain falling over two days, but only about 20 homes have reported basement flooding, according to Mayor Ken Antaya.

The mayor said his town was lucky to land such a low number, and credited steps staff had taken, including incentives to disconnect downspouts and complete smoke tests to find any breakdown in storm drainage, for limiting the chances the system will be overwhelmed.

LaSalle Mayor Ken Antaya said good drainage programs helped limit flooding in his town despite record-breaking rains. (Town of LaSalle)

While the water management system in Windsor presents a much bigger and more complicated problem, Antaya said it's important fo municipalities to try and keep up.

"It's older infrastructure that's going to take a lot of money to repair and I know they do their best," he said. "I think it's just a matter of making sure you stay on top of it."

Dilkens stressed the city has spent $273 million on sewers between 2009 and 2016, more than double the amount spent during the previous eight years.

"This is not about us having our priorities wrong," said Dilkens.

He said staff was currently running cameras through the sewers to provide a detailed analysis and that Windsor faced unique problems underground because it is an amalgamation of several smaller municipalities. He said there was "no magic bullet" to prevent basement flooding. 

"If the city engineer came to my office today and said 'Drew I need $10 million and I can help eliminate basement flooding in the city of Windsor' I would call a special meeting of council and get him the $10 million if that's what it would take, but that's not what he's saying."