The flooding and the damage done

The waters are receding after severe flooding hit Ontario this spring. Now the question is, how do we measure the damage?
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on Jul 07, 2017
The Toronto Islands have experienced heavy flooding this year, symptomatic of a changing climate. (Sam Javanrouh/Creative Commons)

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Heavy rainfall and record-setting water levels in the Great Lakes led to widespread flooding across Ontario this year. Now the waters are retreating, and soaked communities across the province are starting to count their losses. But how do you put a price on the damage?

The totals so far have been significant: Hamilton city council estimated between $4.5 million and $6.8 million, Toronto pegged the costs at $5 million just for overtime for parks staff and lost ferry revenue, and one Beeton-area farmer said he lost $2.5 million in crops.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada has yet to release its tally of the claims for catastrophic loss, but experts suspect that due to the extensive range of the flooding, the claims will be high.

“It's going to be a big number, that's for sure,” says Glenn McGillivray, managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. “It always depends on what you include and don't include. Depending on what you include it could be in the hundreds of millions.”

There’s no standardized method for counting the costs of a natural disaster. The Insurance Bureau of Canada bases its numbers on the damage claims insurance companies receive, but the uninsured costs extend far beyond that.

Take the Toronto Islands, for example: the $5 million figure doesn’t include damage claims from  homeowners, lost revenue (and increased stress) from weddings that couldn’t be held there, and the closures of the Rectory Café and Centreville amusement park. It doesn’t include the cost to islanders who had to miss work to deal with the flood. It doesn’t include the cost to water taxi operators or event organizers.

Even if you could tally all the material costs related to flooding, the emotional toll is another thing entirely.

“When we talk about the costs associated with basement flooding, to date we've almost always been talking about it in the context of a property and casualty insurance perspective but not the mental health perspective,” says Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre for Climate Change Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.


Related:

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The Intact Centre is working on a project in Burlington, where two months’ worth of rain fell in August 2014, causing more than $90 million in insured damage to homes, not to mention damage to parks, roads, and uninsured homes and vehicles. Researchers are trying to get a better picture of the emotional devastation by interviewing flood-affected residents. So far they’ve interviewed about 100 people.

“The material coming out of it is very much showing that people are missing time from work, they're having to get medications to deal with the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. Anecdotally we've had endless statements along the lines of, ‘Every time it rains we can't sleep all night’ and, ‘When the kids get home from school and we've had rain, the first thing they do is check the basement,’” Feltmate says. “Are the mental and psychosocial health impacts material? They certainly are.”

Feltmate and his colleagues are also conducting a pilot program to help homeowners prepare for extreme rainfall, starting with 4,000 Burlington households. The Centre is helping homeowners implement low-cost measures, such as rerouting the downspout away from the house, installing a backwater valve to prevent drains from overflowing, and ensuring the sump pump works.

McGillivray says flooding is only going to get worse and rainstorms more frequent and intense as the climate continues to change: “What we often say is this type of damage we're experiencing this year, you can't point to climate change categorically but you can say this is a symptom of our warming climate.”

And it doesn’t help that urban intensification facilitates flooding. “One of the really big issues is that as cities grow and become denser there's less green space and more pavement,” McGillivray says. “Even if you get a fairly average summer-type downpour you can sometimes get flooding because all the surfaces are impermeable. One of the big movements right now is to return to natural states because natural green land can manage flood better than pavement can.”

The recently funded plan to revitalize the mouth of Toronto’s Don River is in large part a flood prevention tactic. The federal government committed to funding the $1.2 billion makeover in late June, kicking off a long-anticipated redevelopment of the area that will see the current industrial Keating Channel turned into a lush, naturalized river mouth.

“We're not going backwards on climate change. Climate change has happened, is happening and will continue to happen,” Feltmate says. “The extremes in the weather as a result of that and the potential for flooding is simply going to increase. There's nothing we can do to turn that clock back.”

Photo courtesy of Sam Javanrouh and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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