Alberta flooding sets records, prompts calls for action on climate change

OTTAWA – Water-logged southern Alberta is on track to set a new Canadian record for flood damage, both in terms of cost and the number of people forced from their homes.

The severity of the flooding has a former top federal environmental adviser hoping that the Alberta-centric Harper government will finally get its “head out of the sand bag” when it comes to climate change.

“It’s a helluva warning, really, about unpredictable, extreme weather events and the need to prepare for it,” said David McLaughlin, former head of the now-defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

While one can debate the causes of climate change, McLaughlin said it’s indisputable that the planet is warming and setting off more frequent extreme weather events: floods, tornadoes, drought, freezing rain, prolonged heat waves or cold snaps.

The changes usually “happen so slowly that we typically don’t pay much attention to them until we have this incredible event taking place before our eyes so quickly,” he said in an interview.

“And that’s why the Calgary flood and southern Alberta floods may really mark a change in how people view climate, the issues of climate.”

In terms of property damage and lives up-ended, the flooding appears to be without precedent.

The Alberta government estimates 120,000 people have been forced out of their homes since the flooding began in earnest last week — and more may yet face evacuation as the torrential flow of water moves downstream.

Premier Alison Redford committed $1 billion to the recovery effort Monday — and that’s just to kick-start the operation.

Until now, according to the Canadian Disaster Database, the 1950 Winnipeg flood was the largest flood-related evacuation in the country since 1900. One-third of Winnipeg’s population — 107,000 people — were forced out of their homes as the Red River submerged a tenth of the city.

The database also pegs the 2010 flooding of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan as the costliest — $984 million in damage — until now.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who represents a Calgary riding, has dismissed suggestions that climate change has anything to do with the magnitude of flooding in southern Alberta, which he has called “a once-in-a-century event.”

But McLaughlin noted that the 2005 flooding in southern Alberta — which seems like a trickle of water compared to the deluge over the past few days — was also said to be a once-in-a-century event.

“Now we have in 2013 the second once-in-a-century flood in less than a decade,” he said.

“Denying that climate change is a cause is akin to putting your head in the sand — in this case, your head in a sand bag.”

McLaughlin noted that polls suggest Albertans tend to be the most skeptical among Canadians that climate change is a real problem. And he said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Calgarian himself, and his government have tended to “reinforce” that skepticism.

But now, under the federal disaster financial assistance arrangements, the Harper government could end up paying as much as 90 per cent of the costs of rebuilding southern Alberta.

That billion-plus price tag, along with the cascading economic costs of shutting down the country’s fourth largest city, may finally force the skeptics to come to terms with reality, McLaughlin hopes.

“Maybe there’s going to be a more acute awareness now that this can hit home anywhere and, if it hits home in downtown Calgary, we can see because of the importance of that city … it can have an effect right across the country.”

Apart from Canada doing its part to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, McLaughlin said governments need to focus on adapting to climate change, making cities and towns more resilient in the face of extreme weather.

Among other things, that means building stronger, less vulnerable infrastructure, prohibiting development on flood plains, investing in back-up power systems and better emergency planning.

It also means paying more for insurance, he said.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the amount insurers pay out in damage claims due to severe weather has doubled every five to 10 years since 1980. And that doesn’t include most of the damage wrought by floods.

Home insurance policies generally don’t include coverage for damage caused by overland flooding — that is, water that pours in through doors or windows as was the case in Alberta. They do, however, cover water damage that seeps in through the basement or is the result of backed up sewer pipes.

Steve Kee, spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said overland flooding isn’t offered because only a relatively small fraction of Canadians live in flood plains or near rivers and lakes.

With so few prospective policy holders among whom to spread the risk, the cost of flood insurance would be prohibitive, he said.

Still, even without having to pay staggering overland flood claims, water damage is now the leading cause of property damage in Canada, costing insurance companies an estimated $1.7 billion per year. The bureau says the damage is typically the result of municipal infrastructure failure.

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