Day 6

Want to know if you live in a high-risk flood area? 'Good luck,' says expert

Jason Thistlethwaite, professor of environment and economics at the University of Waterloo, studied 700 Canadian flood maps and found that most were either out of date, hard to read or inaccessible to the public.

Canada's flood maps are often out of date, hard to decipher and inaccessible to the public

A view from a Canadian Forces helicopter shows the flooded region of Rigaud, Quebec. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
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Flooding in Quebec and New Brunswick this week has homeowners questioning whether to stay or go, as both provinces face high water levels again this spring just a year or two after severe flooding in both places. 

Quebec's government has offered to buy out residents in flood zones, while New Brunswick is considering it. 

But for homeowners who are trying to figure out if they're at risk in the future, research from the University of Waterloo suggests that information may prove very difficult to find.  

Jason Thistlethwaite, professor of environment and economics at the University of Waterloo, conducted a study to find and understand Canada's flood maps. He and his colleagues reviewed maps from 280 municipalities and found that most were insufficient — either out of date, inaccessible to the public or unintelligible to the average property owner.  

For the second straight year, homes were evacuated. For the second straight year, the Trans-Canada Highway was closed downriver from Fredericton. (Stephen MacGillivray/Canadian Press)

"In Canada right now, we're ignorant of this risk, so we're not even able to defend our property," Thistlethwaite told Day 6's Brent Bambury.

He says many of the flood maps were meant for engineers and planners, so would mean little to most property owners. Others were only accessible on a dated web browser. And other municipalities didn't have any maps that the public could access at all.

"It's absurd as an industrialized country; we actually don't have high quality flood maps to let people know about their exposure to flood risk," said Thistlethwaite.

Researcher Jason Thistlethwaite points to this Nanaimo B.C. map as an example of poor flood map quality in Canada. A study from the University of Waterloo indicates that most flood maps in Canada are lacking. (Government of British Columbia Floodplain Maps by Region)

High-risk areas not always obvious

Even residents who don't live near a body of water could be at risk of flooding. Thistlethwaite says urban flooding is very common, with thanks to high population densities and aging infrastructure. This is a type of flooding that Toronto residents got to know too well this past summer when torrents of rainwater flooded much of the city.

A car submerged in flood waters on a Toronto street, next to a streetcar that's also underwater. Radar estimates show some spots received more than 100 mm in less than 3 hours. (@earthisanocean/Twitter)

Thistlethwaite says that the flood maps available in Canada will deal with river flooding, but not urban flooding.

"We actually don't have a very good idea of where that risk is at all in Canada," he said.

U.K. residents can search their postal code to see flood risk

Canada's system of flood maps isn't universal. The United Kingdom has a website that allows residents to type in a postal code and see what the flood risk is relative to that property.

The Australian government simply collected the existing maps into one database and made them publicly accessible. Thistlethwaite says he and his team have recommended the federal government take on Australia's system.

"At this point, anything is better than nothing," he said.

Thistlethwaite blamed the hold-up on a combination of governments "downloading" the responsibility of flood risk onto the property owner, and a lack of investment.

"What really has been missing is leadership by the federal government to help coordinate this information and get it out to the provinces, [and] support from the provinces to then make the information available there," said Thistlethwaite.

'This is not people's fault'

Thistlethwaite says there is a lot of "victim-blame" in flooding — the assumption that property owners should know if they're in high-risk flood areas or not, or that they should just move.

"The information is not available," he said. "This is not people's fault, and we need to be doing a better job getting the government to do the things that help us protect ourselves from this flood risk."

Restaurant owner Thane Mallory's view of the Gagetown marina during the flooding. (CBC News Network)

In New Brunswick, Gagetown restaurant owner Thane Mallory had to shut down his shop due to flooding from Gagetown Creek.

"You're seeing the the local marina which used to be nicely stacked and now it's just kind of Jenga," he said.

Mallory describes his relationship with the creek as a "tough love affair."

"When the river is where it's supposed to be, you wake up in the morning and you go, 'Hey, this is the best place to be in the world.' And after travelling all over the world, [...] this is home, and the river keeps calling me back," said Mallory.

So, what can you do to find out?

A man and woman hold hands while walking through a flooded residential area in Gatineau. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Thistlethwaite says a property owner's ability to find their flood risk really depends on where the property is.

"If you're lucky," he said, some municipalities have the information accessible on their website.

Some provincial governments, like Ontario, have a conservation authority, which he says have relatively up-to-date riverine flood maps.

But he says the best option is to check with an insurance provider, and ask about flood insurance.

"But good luck is really all I have to say to you if you're trying to figure out that type of information. It is exceedingly difficult."