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Trudeau Urges Cities to ‘Rebuild Better’, But Disaster Preparedness Falls Short

Justin Trudeau – Prime Minister of Canada/YouTube

All levels of government in Canada must learn to “rebuild better” as more frequent floods and fires become a reality thanks to climate change, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week, after touring flood zones in Gatineau with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

“We’re going to have to understand that bracing for a 100-year storm is maybe going to happen every 10 years now, or every few years,” the PM said. “And that means as we look to rebuild our communities, our homes, our infrastructure, we’re going to have to think about what we can do to rebuild better.”

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Asked whether municipalities should be permitted to rebuild in areas at high risk for flooding, Trudeau said only that communities must plan in a “thoughtful and measured” way. But an internal review [2] of the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements puts it more directly, noting that the average annual federal share of provincial/territorial response and recovery costs has increased from C$10 million from 1970 to 1995, to $100 million from 1996 to 2010, to $360 million from 2011 to 2016.

Although government efforts traditionally focus on relief after the fact, “mitigation is the most effective approach to reduce costs associated with disaster recovery,” the report states. “The evaluation found that mitigation can improve disaster resilience of Canadian communities and reduce financial burden from future disasters,” CBC notes.

But in a post on iPolitics, columnist Alan Freeman warns [3] that the division of responsibilities between cities and more senior levels of government can get in the way of rational flood preparedness.

Land use planning is largely municipal—but the cost of disaster reconstruction falls primarily in the laps of federal and provincial governments,” he writes. “Municipal politicians aren’t going to face the wrath of local homeowners and tell them they can’t rebuild their homes—especially when they know that Ottawa and the province will end up picking up the tab in any event.”

Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Risk Reduction, agreed that cities “face far more upside risk than downside risk when it comes to approving building in high-risk hazard zones.” He added that “when the bailout comes from elsewhere, there is no incentive to make the right decision.”

But Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin wasn’t thinking about long-term planning when he appeared beside Trudeau, Freeman reports. “There are people who are losing their memories, losing their homes in which they worked, in which their parents worked, and there, we’re asking them to lose their neighbourhoods,” Pedneaud-Jobin said. “I’m not ready to do that.”

While flooding in Quebec, New Brunswick, and British Columbia has been at the top of the news in recent weeks, the Fort McMurray wildfire was a lead story last year at this time. McGillvray described the city as “a wooden boat sitting in a sea of gasoline,” a reality Freeman says has not been factored into the recovery plan for Fort Mac.

“Instead of rethinking the urban space and trying to figure out whether the city should be rebuilt in the same way when it’s sitting in the middle of a boreal forest where wildfires are endemic, governments are allowing reconstruction to take place without any plan to avoid a future disaster,” he writes.