What on Earth

With flood threat increasing, is it time to retreat from living on the riskiest waterfront land?

Flooding is the costliest natural hazard in Canada, and that's expected to get worse with climate change. A potential solution people don't like to talk about is exactly what some experts say we must consider: When is it time to stop living on the riskiest waterfront properties altogether?

Recent study found climate change has made storms with extreme rainfall more frequent

Thomas Little has watched flood waters rise from the Gatineau River behind his home in Gatineau, Que. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)
Listen to the full episode27:00

Thomas Little revels in the view out the back window of his home in Gatineau, Que.

"I'm literally only a 14-minute drive from Parliament Hill and [in] my backyard I see trees and [the] river and I don't see the city at all. It's quite a little paradise," Little said.

But there was nothing to make him think of paradise in 2017 when floodwaters burst over the two-metre-high wall of sandbags he built to try to keep the Gatineau River at bay.

  • Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio 1 every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. in Newfoundland 

"My whole basement was totally flooded in about four feet of water," Little told What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

"I was just totally brokenhearted and tired because I had been laying sandbags for three weeks.... I had no hydro. I had no heat. It was raining. It was cold. It was just a nightmare."

Little's experience is hardly unique, as across Canada, flooding has become the most expensive natural disaster, costing $1 billion annually in damage to homes, property and infrastructure, according to the federal Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

Royal Canadian Navy and Task Force Montreal personnel patrol an area of flooding to look for those in need of help or evacuation in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que., on April 29, 2019. (Cplc Julie Turcotte/34th Brigade Group/2nd Canadian Division/Reuters)

Insurers and many policy experts expect that number will go up. Sea levels are rising. A recent study by researchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada found that climate change has made rainfall more extreme and storms with extreme rainfall more frequent.

While experts see a variety of strategies to help deal with the situation, there is one potential solution people may not want to talk about: When might it be time to retreat from living on the riskiest waterfront properties altogether?

Floodwaters returned behind Little's house in 2019, although the sandbags weren't breached. Many times, Little said, he's thought about moving away. But for him, it's just not an option.

 "This is my retirement fund, so to speak. I couldn't get rid of it and I couldn't afford to walk away."

The Quebec government offered him $200,000 to walk away, but in his mind, that was no option either. Rather, he said, it was an "insult."

"I spent many years in this house making it mine and ... giving me a measly $200,000 to walk away … in this economy, what do you do with $200,000? You can't buy another house. So my answer was no."

Looking for options

Jason Thistlethwaite, an associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, expects we will see more programs like the one in Quebec, where residents were offered money to leave their homes.

Jason Thistlethwaite, an associate professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, says taxpayers aren't willing to keep paying to rebuild in high-risk flood areas. (University of Waterloo)

"Taxpayers are starting to see what's going on here and they simply aren't willing to continue paying to rebuild in high-risk flood areas, so the solution is you try to give people the option of leaving or relocating to a safer area," he told Lynch.

"These strategies are by far the best forms of risk mitigation because you take exposure of people and property to the water and you bring it to zero by moving them to a safer location."

But the whole idea of what's known as "managed retreat," or moving people or infrastructure out of risk-prone areas, could be easier said than done.

In Surrey, B.C., a plan that could potentially have seen the city buy out 400 waterfront homes was abandoned in 2018 after a backlash from the community.

That is "all too common" a story, said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. 

"I think there's an incredible amount of backlash because people have very strong ties to where we live."

Seeking personal control

People want personal control, she said.  

"I think people become afraid the government is going to force them out," rather than asking if they would like to leave and offering financial help if they do.

"That's hard to convey in a nuanced way, especially ... right after disaster, when people are already emotionally overwhelmed," Siders said.

A.R. Siders, an assistant professor in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware, says people want personal control over their property. (University of Delaware)

Complicating matters is the fact that many Canadians living in high-risk flood areas are unaware of the peril.

"We have asked Canadians this question and found that only six per cent were correctly able to identify that they were, in fact, living in a high-risk flood area," said Thistlethwatite.

"We do not have widely publicly available maps designed for individuals to gain an appreciation of their flood risk." 

Maps for engineers, not homeowners

Maps that do exist are old and can be confusing, tending to have been drawn for engineers rather than the average homeowner. 

Also key to this is the question of insurance.

Historically, Thisthlethwaite said, only damage from basic flooding coming in through a stormwater system was covered. But in late 2015, insurance companies started offering overland flood insurance, which covers damage caused by water coming in from sources such as a river.

"This coverage is now available in Canada, but it is not available to those who need it most, because in our high-risk areas, it's either companies aren't willing to sell it or it's cost-prohibitive," Thistlethwaite said. 

(Insurance Bureau of Canada)

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has been advocating for governments to take on a greater role in the issue.

"You may buy a home based on municipal information, thinking it's low-risk, but then find out that your bank or insurer views it as high-risk, which obviously would make you unhappy," said Craig Stewart, the bureau's vice-president of federal affairs. 

"So it's up to us, frankly, in the private sector, and with governments, to get our act together and start sharing information much more actively than we're doing right now."

Government plans

There are some signs of movement from the federal government. 

Along with efforts to update flood maps across Canada, the economic and fiscal update last week made mention of the issue, including "funding to Public Safety Canada and Indigenous Services Canada to support the creation of a task force to develop options for a national high-risk flood insurance program and a national action plan for potential relocation."

Thistlethwaite welcomed that involvement.

"This is certainly the most we've seen the federal government do in terms of an active role in flood risk management," he said.

Little has turned to a German-made, removable wall of aluminum and galvanized steel to offer flood protection behind his house. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"Any resources toward this is better than where we were."

Thistlethwaite predicts a "significant disruption to the economy" if we don't have a comprehensive strategy for mitigating floods before they happen.

We're going to see more floods, he said, and they're going to start happening in areas of significant population.

"We need in Canada to have a much stronger public policy response to climate change risks and to flood risks."

Building a temporary barrier

For Little, the way forward to counter any potential flood lies in a new product he found from Germany. It's a temporary aluminum barrier that can be installed by two people in three to four hours, whereas sandbags of the same volume would take a dozen people three or four weeks to arrange.

It didn't come cheap — the aluminum panels cost $44,000, and with a concrete retaining wall, landscaping and underground pumps, the total cost to try to keep the water away approaches $100,000.

"So … this is where I am now," said Little. "I have found myself some protection."

He had known the river flooded. 

WATCH | How Thomas Little took flood prevention into his own hands:

Thomas Little, who had to scramble to save his home by the Gatineau River during floods in 2017 and 2019, has installed a two-metre high aluminum wall along the length of his property. 1:23

"But between myself and the river I always had a 10-foot wall, and for 27 years, up to 2017, it never got past that wall."

When he bought his house, he said, "nobody mentioned anything about a flood zone," and he didn't even think about it. The mortgage company and the city didn't say anything to him, either.

Little said he doesn't worry about the future of his house.

"I can't afford the stress of thinking that way," he said. If the water goes above the new barrier, "it won't just be myself that gets flooded, it will be half of Gatineau. It will be good portions of Ottawa that will be devastated." 

"My aluminum barrier is like an insurance policy, right? And I'm happy to live in my house. I look out in my backyard, I see the garden, I see the river."

And in the next few days, he may go down to the river for some fishing.

Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio 1 every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., 11 a.m. in Newfoundland.

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