Lack of national disaster mitigation plan prompts 'criticism': federal notes

OTTAWA – The national strategy for minimizing the impact of catastrophes such as the Alberta flood has endured “consistent criticism” for not backing up words with financial support, say internal federal documents.

The floods that ravaged southern Alberta highlight the importance of a funded national disaster mitigation program — something the federal government and provinces have been working on for years.

Mitigation includes measures such as building floodways and dikes to eliminate or reduce damage from a swollen river. It might also involve elevating homes in flood-prone areas, mapping hazards, enforcing building codes, creating tornado-safe rooms or burying electrical cables to prevent ice buildup.

Five years ago, federal and provincial governments launched the country’s national disaster mitigation strategy — branding it part of a robust emergency management system. But it’s still a work in progress.

“The Strategy has yet to be supported with a program for implementation, and has received consistent criticism for recognizing the importance of mitigation, but not providing financial support,” say the internal briefing notes.

The notes, prepared last year for the deputy minister of Public Safety and stamped Secret, were released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. Portions of the documents — including a section outlining “next steps” — were considered too sensitive to disclose.

Public Safety’s latest performance report notes that since summer 2011 it has consulted with provinces, territories and other government departments on “possible program components” of a cost-shared national disaster mitigation program. The department had no update Friday on the negotiations.

“All Canadian communities are at risk of disasters,” the deputy minister was advised last year.

One in three Canadians live in earthquake-prone regions, 80 per cent of the country’s cities are located in a flood plain, the threat of pandemic influenza persists, 20,000 hazardous spills happen each year and communities are now more vulnerable to fires from nearby woodlands, the briefing notes say.

At the same time, the frequency and costs of disasters are increasing, the notes warn.

Before 1995, there had been only three disasters costing more than $500 million in damages (adjusted to 2010 dollars), but over the last decade or so there have been nine catastrophes exceeding that amount.

“These events alone cost Canadians approximately $1.1 billion annually.”

Despite the up-front costs, mitigation measures have yielded significant savings in Canada and worldwide, say the notes. For instance, the Red River Floodway, built in the 1960s at a cost of $60 million, has been used more than 20 times and has saved an estimated $30 billion in damages.

“Historically, government investment in mitigation has been limited and fragmented across various programs and departments,” the notes acknowledge.

One Environment Canada flood damage reduction program ended in 1998 after 23 years. But some mitigation monies flow from the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements, the Building Canada Fund and Public-Private Partnership Canada.

The 2012 federal budget set aside almost $100 million to help the provinces and territories with the cost of permanent flood mitigation projects undertaken for the serious 2011 flood season. It also emphasized the government’s willingness to continue working on a full-fledged, continuing national program.

Emergency management ministers from across the country expressed continuing support for such a program at a meeting in Victoria in May of last year.

Still, the briefing notes point out that a national disaster mitigation program is a “new area of business” for Public Safety and the federal government.

In addition, during the most recent budget process, Public Safety was scrambling to come up with enough money to cover its existing share of national disaster assistance, requesting an extra $230 million in funding.

Officials advised a Senate committee that they would be asking for an additional $470 million in the various supplementary estimates during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 periods “to support these obligations.”

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