The Current

Why rebuild after flood if it's likely to happen again, asks climatologist

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says we need to 'rebuild better' after the floods but should we rebuild at all?
Residents make their way through a flooded streets in Laval, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

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People in many parts of Canada are starting the long process of assessing the flood damage in their homes — and those in parts of B.C. where the risk isn't over yet are keeping the sandbags handy.

As the effects of climate change increase the risks of floods and extreme weather events, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke last week about the need not just to rebuilt, but to "rebuild better — to rebuild in ways that are going to be more resistant, more resilient to the unpredictability we are now living in."

PM Justin Trudeau says the frequency of extreme weather means we need to think about how we rebuild communities. 1:20

Climatologist Jeannine St. Jacques has some straightforward advice on what this means.

"We've been building on the flood plains for years, which is insane," the Concordia University professor tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

She warns that increased flood risk means some people might have to move — even if they've been living in an area for a long time. She admits that's a hard thing for people to hear from an expert like her but "sometimes just staying in place, it's just not going to work."

"I'm saying hard and cruel things," says St. Jacques.

This is what Gouin Boulevard West in Montreal's Pierrefonds neighbourhood looked like on May 10, after flood waters had started to recede. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

"But if somebody rebuilds ... and there's a good chance in their lifetime they're going to get flooded out again and have to start again — well, that seems even harder."

Mandatory buyouts are the best solution to get residents to move, argues Glenn McGillivray, managing director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a research institute established by the insurance industry and affiliated with Western University.

"[A mandatory buyout] is where a government body would step in and offer fair market value for the property," McGillivray tells Tremonti.

"It's pre-flood fair market value and then the land would be converted into green space or that sort of thing."

Voluntary buyouts don't work, he argues, pointing to the case of Calgary, where only about a third of homeowners took up the offer after the 2013 floods.

A parked car sits at Saint-Louis Street on Wednesday as flood waters slowly recede in the Pointe-Gatineau neighbourhood. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Steve Conrad says the amount of concrete and other hard materials in our cities has made it harder for water to be absorbed.

"We need to consider ways to reduce the impact of storms," says Conrad, a board member of the BC Water and Waste Association, "by slowing the storm water that goes through our communities through rain gardens, through green roofs, using different types of building materials that are more porous rather than these concrete and steel structures."

St. Jacques hopes the latest floods bring these issues home for Canadians.

"What I'm hoping is is an aftermath of all of the floods and all of the misery that we're seeing now is that people will start thinking and having this discussion'" she says.

"I think there's a good chance."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson and Montreal network producer Susan Mckenzie.