Nova Scotia floods put spotlight on infrastructure gaps

As Nova Scotia cleans up from its third major flood in 10 years, residents and politicians alike are asking whether more infrastructure spending now could help avoid increasing repair costs in the future.
Residents take photos as dikes on the Salmon River gave way in Truro, N.S. on Monday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As people in Truro, Nova Scotia clean up from the flood this week, frustration is bubbling to the surface.

This is the third time in 10 years the area has flooded.

Helen Barron is assessing the damage this time to her house. "They should be able to do something," she said.

"They" are politicians — local, provincial and federal.

Water from the North River floods a highway the Truro-Bible Hill area of Nova Scotia Monday. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter toured the region before heading to China on a trade mission. He's planning to meet with local officials to see what can be done to improve the dikes and local infrastructure.

He wants the federal government to help too, and he points to the millions of dollars Ottawa spends through its disaster relief fund.

"What we ought to be doing is spending that money in advance rather than having to spend it after the fact to fix up infrastructure," Dexter said in a phone interview from the airport.

Igor spurred upgrades in Newfoundland

By contrast, Newfoundland and Labrador made those investments in its roads and culverts, after 2010's Hurricane Igor.

Ottawa, the province and local municipalities, all spent about $250 million upgrading infrastructure.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale told reporters this week that the investment paid off.

"We've had, in some areas, over a hundred millimetres of rain, in other pockets 50 to 75 [millimetres] — that's a lot of rain. And our infrastructure stood up under it. So I think that's significant."

The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy warned of more frequent extreme weather events, and the related costs, a year ago.

The federal government shut the roundtable down this year.

But its former head, David McLaughlin says there's a lesson to be learned in how Newfoundland and Nova Scotia dealt with storms this week.

"We're seeing infrastructure built for previous or old kind of patterns of rain and extreme weather being absolutely overwhelmed by this 'new normal.' And the new normal is more storm surges, heavier precipitation happening at different times, and infrastructure is not always ready to cope with it," McLaughlin told CBC News.

His report recommended all three levels of government come together to devise a plan to improve infrastructure.

That's just what the Federation of Canadian Municipalities called for this week, in its own report on the state of infrastructure across the country.

It found that one third of Canada's infrastructure is in urgent need of repair.

FCM president Karen Leibovici believes there is growing political will at all levels to make the investment, thanks to a growing awareness that the choice is either spend the money now, or pay higher costs later to repair the damage.