How bad is Ontario’s flood problem? Depends where you live

Climate change will put the province in the path of more weather-related disasters, but not all municipalities are ready to manage the threat
By Patrick Metzger - Published on May 28, 2018
a flooded street
Brantford, Ontario, was hit by severe flooding in February 2018. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/CP)

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of weather events in Ontario — and how they’ll affect you will depend in large part on where you live.

Heavy rain and flooding aren’t new, but the increased incidence of such events is, and that’s due in part to a warming climate caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. And as climate change accelerates, such destructive rain events — and other weather-related disasters like ice storms, heat waves, and wildfires — will occur more frequently.

The data confirms that that’s already begun. Figures from the Insurance Bureau of Canada show a dramatic upward trend in insurable losses due to catastrophic events. Between 1983 and 2008, there were only two years (1998 and 2005) when losses totalled more than $1 billion in 2016 dollars; from 2009 to 2017, only one year (2015) saw less than $1 billion in losses.

The spring and summer of 2017 saw flooding across the province, from Windsor to London to Thunder Bay. And in February 2018, powerful rainstorms and an early thaw caused large-scale flooding in London, Brantford, and elsewhere.  


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While the reasons for the flooding are multifaceted and vary across regions, in all cases a contributing factor was torrential (and in many of the 2017 cases, record-breaking) rainfall that swelled lakes and rivers and swamped drainage systems. In some places, municipal resources were equally overwhelmed.

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo says bluntly, “It's now become obvious to pretty much any sentient being that climate change is real. We're seeing the expression of extreme weather events, and we've got to have to start doing what we can to get risk out of the system.”

So who owns that risk?

Under the Ontario Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, primary responsibility for handling flooding and other disasters lies with municipalities, many of which may not have the resources to plan for or manage a serious crisis. A robust response to sudden emergencies can be manageable for larger urban areas — Toronto, for example, has a detailed emergency response plan that includes risk-specific plans for events like floods. Equally important, Toronto has a large number of first responders and other personnel available in crisis situations and can deploy them to protect lives and property.  

Toronto is an exception, however. A report produced by Dillon Consulting on behalf of Clarington, Ontario, found that of 26 Ontario municipalities surveyed, all had emergency management plans as required, and several had references to flooding — but only four (Toronto, Mississauga, Oakville, and Peterborough) had flood-specific plans.

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In May 2017, Lake Ontario came knocking in Clarington. Having heard news of flooding across the lake in New York, Sarah Delicate and other lakefront residents had already contacted local authorities in search of support. 

“We're talking violent flooding — it's not just, oh dear, you watch this kind of slow increase of the water coming towards you, and you've got three days to get your bags in place. It's a wall of water, hitting your second-floor windows, knocking you back. It’s terrifying.”

Delicate believes that the unprecedented scale of the flooding in Clarington left local authorities struggling to contain the burgeoning disaster and that the provincial response was too little, too late.

“When the first responders came, they literally stood for two hours and watched the water rise. They had no idea what to do, none. The emergency management coordinator … looked at me with my feet in the water and said to me, ‘I'm sorry, this really is not my problem.’“  Although the challenges were considerable, homeowners were supposed to handle them on their own.

Moreover, although the flooding had already become a crisis by May 5, a declaration of emergency (which facilitates the transfer of resources from the province and from neighbouring municipalities) wasn’t issued until May 8, possibly reflecting a lack of clarity from the province on what constitutes an emergency. Under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, an emergency is “a situation or an impending situation that constitutes a danger of major proportions that could result in serious harm to persons or substantial damage to property and that is caused by the forces of nature, a disease or other health risk, an accident or an act whether intentional or otherwise” — a definition that can leave considerable room for uncertainty about when to take action.

Tim Calhoun, the deputy fire chief with Clarington Emergency and Fire Service, rotated into the command role after the second of the city’s four major flood events. He spent a lot of time talking to those hit the hardest, and, like Delicate, he believes that more work needs to be done at all levels of government to prepare for future disasters. 

“A couple of residents, the most emotional, pulled no punches and held back no tears while angrily conveying their thoughts regarding our initial and utter ill-preparedness as a municipality to respond and mitigate and recover with any depth of service.”

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Even in cases when a community is prepared and plans are well-executed, the risk of serious damage remains high. When Brantford, Ontario — which, like Clarington, has a population of roughly 100, 000 — was hit by severe flooding in February 2018, it was ready for an emergency and responded quickly.

Maria Visocchi, director of communications and community engagement, spoke about the crisis. “We have an advantage in that unlike some other smaller towns and municipalities, we do have an emergency operations centre, and the people that are part of that centre have all been trained in emergency management.” 

Six months prior to the flood, the city had run a full-day training exercise that simulated a hurricane strike. As a result, Visocchi says, “We felt competent in making the decisions that that had to be made in the in the time that they had to be made.”

And that time was short. At 4:15 a.m. on February 21, the Grand River Conservation Authority advised the Brantford municipal flood coordinator and police services that an ice jam upstream had burst, sending a surge of water toward the town. By 5 a.m., the designated city personnel had been notified, called to the Emergency Operations Centre, and briefed on the situation.

The first action was, Visocchi says, to “get boots on the ground and eyes on the river” to determine when the surges were expected and what action would be needed. At 9 a.m., a state of emergency was declared by the mayor, which allowed for a request for additional resources from Emergency Management Ontario. By 10:30 a.m. the decision had been taken to evacuate almost 5,000 people from the affected area. Soon after, the communications plan was set in motion, using radio, billboards, social media, and door-to-door visits by police to alert the population.

Because the waters rose so swiftly, the primary consideration was public safety and the preservation of life. The flooding caused major damage, but due in large part to the quick response of local authorities, no lives were lost.

Premier Kathleen Wynne arrived in Brantford within hours of the declaration of a state of emergency, offering the full services of the province if required. Immediately following the flooding, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Bill Mauro visited the floodplain areas and met with city officials.

However, unlike Clarington, which endured a series of escalating events, Brantford faced floods that happened so quickly there was no opportunity to request or receive on-the-ground help — such as sandbags and the hands to lay them — from the province.

Had the emergency been more widespread, it’s likely that, in spite of Brantford’s preparedness, more immediate, practical aid would have been needed to carry out the communication and evacuation plans. Maria Visocchi acknowledges as much: “If you were to speak to police and fire, I think that they would say that … they were maxed out. Everybody that could possibly be involved was involved. Had the incident been completely city-wide, I don't know that I could say with confidence that we would have had enough resources.”

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So with extreme weather on the rise, and many municipalities lacking the resources to plan for or manage large-scale emergencies, what is the province doing?

Ontario has a long-term climate-change mitigation plan focused on reducing the carbon emissions that are heating up the planet. And in 2017, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change released for public comment a policy proposal that outlines the government’s planned approach to climate-change adaptation. The proposal targets specific priorities, such as revising building codes, working with municipalities on updated risk assessments, and prioritizing upgrades to critical infrastructure like roads, water, and electricity.

But climate change has already arrived: the effective cross-jurisdictional management of emergencies on the ground right now also has to be a priority.

The Ontario Auditor General’s report of December 2017 had tough words for the government about the province’s readiness for weather and other emergencies.

The report notes that “growing research about the impact of climate change has focused attention on the increasing likelihood of more frequent and extreme natural hazards” and echoes the issues raised by the Clarington flooding victims: “Unequal levels of preparedness and support mean that some municipalities may not be adequately prepared to respond if a local emergency arises, resulting in different levels of public safety across the province in the case of an actual emergency. This puts an increased responsibility on the provincial government to come to the aid of the least-prepared areas.”

Of the 831-page report from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, 46 pages — and 15 specific recommendations — are devoted to Emergency Management Ontario (which falls under the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services).

Among the issues she identifies are outdated emergency response plans that do not reflect current threats, insufficient staff for lengthy emergencies, and a lack of in-place agreements that would facilitate a municipality’s access to needed resources during a crisis. In general, the report finds that EMO is under-resourced, with the result that municipalities are not getting sufficient support in planning and preparing for potential emergencies or for dealing with them when they arrive.

Lysyk also noted that at the time of the report, the cabinet committee on emergency management, responsible for oversight of emergency management in Ontario, had not met for several years. (An earlier internal study released by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in August 2017 identified similar gaps.)

In response, a new emergency management action plan was announced immediately prior to the AG report. In an email, Brent Ross from MCSCS said that it would, among other things, “help municipalities by providing greater access to critical supplies and resources in an emergency through an enhanced supply chain program, as well as improved information and resource sharing through new EM software.” However, details and a timeline for implementation have not been released.

Delicate says of her experience with coordination between levels of government, “It is a paper exercise. Everyone could point to the chain of command, tell me what the escalation process is, but nothing plays out on the ground.”

Calhoun expresses the same sentiment in an email: “At the provincial level, there is no real structure in place to assist communities which suffer extreme events like the Clarington flooding, and … the onus to respond is put on the municipalities, which with a few larger exceptions probably don't have the resources or skills to deal with it.”

There is no simple fix here — as the auditor general highlighted, considerable change will be required at Emergency Management Ontario to enhance the preparedness of Ontario municipalities, and that change would come with a hefty price tag.

There’s reason to suppose that the voices calling for change are being heard. The new emergency management action plan, and the swift and visible response of government ministers to the February floods, suggests a willingness to support communities facing large-scale emergencies.  

But time is of the essence. As the coming years bring higher temperatures and more severe weather to Ontario, fast and efficient support will be needed in more places than ever. “It is exhausting that when you are in one of the most traumatic events … in your life,” Delicate says, “that you also have to expend all of your emotional energy fighting your government.”

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