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Canada tries a forceful message for flood victims: Live someplace else

As the costs of climate change mount, Canada has begun forcing flooded homeowners to move, prompting clashes over what counts as fair

By: New York Times | Published: September 11, 2019 8:26:00 am
Canada tries a forceful message for flood victims: Live someplace else A raised house in Gatineau (Alexi Hobbs/The New York Times)

Written by Christopher Flavelle

Along the coast of the United States, people who lost homes to Hurricane Dorian are preparing to rebuild. But Canada — which has faced devastating flooding of its own — is testing a very different idea of disaster recovery: forcing people to move.

Unlike the United States, which will repeatedly help pay for people to rebuild in place, Canada has responded to the escalating costs of climate change by limiting aid after disasters and even telling people to leave their homes. It is an experiment that has exposed a complex mix of relief, anger and loss as entire neighborhoods are removed, house by house.

“Canadians are stubbornly beginning to reconsider the wisdom of building near flood-prone areas,” said Jason Thistlethwaite, a professor of environment and business at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “It’s taking government action to obligate people to make better decisions.”

The real-world consequences of that philosophy are playing out in Gatineau, a city across the river from Ottawa that has been hit by two 100-year-floods since 2017. Residents here are waiting for officials to tell them if the damage from the latest flood, in April, exceeded 50% of the value of those homes. Those who get that notice will be offered some money and told to leave.

In many cases, residents are fine with that.

“I’m very happy,” said Louise David, who just learned that the government will force her to take a buyout. “I don’t want to live this again.”

Canada’s approach offers lessons for the United States, where the quickening tempo and growing force of storms such as Dorian has strained government budgets.

By most accounts, Canada’s experiment began in the summer of 2013, when floods in southern Alberta caused more than 7.5 billion Canadian dollars, or about $5.7 billion, in damage, the most expensive disaster in the country’s history at the time. The toll was particularly great in High River, a town of 14,000 about an hour south of Calgary where floods affected 80% of homes.

Rather than pay to rebuild them all, officials issued mandatory buyouts for two particularly exposed neighborhoods.

Not all residents were on board. “Those were some of the worst meetings I’ve ever been involved in, telling people they’ve got to leave their homes,” said Craig Snodgrass, High River’s mayor, who supported the buyouts.

Still, the homes came down.

A tree stump on a lot on which a house was demolished after the 2017 floods, in Gatineau. (Alexi Hobbs/The New York Times)

This year the federal government went further still, warning that homeowners nationwide would eventually be on their own. If people deliberately rebuild in danger zones, at some point “they are going to have to assume their own responsibility for the cost burden,” Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters in April. “You can’t repeatedly go back to the taxpayer and say, ‘Oh, it happened again.’ ”

No part of the country has been more aggressive than Quebec. Since 2005, the province, Canada’s largest in area, has prohibited building new homes or rebuilding flood-damaged ones, in the 20-year floodplain — areas with a particularly high risk of inundation.

But after major floods hit Gatineau and other parts of Quebec again this April, the government expanded the no-building zone to include any area inundated in 2017 or 2019. Within the enlarged “special intervention zone,” homes damaged by 50% or more of their value must now be abandoned.

Quebec also limited disaster aid and not just inside the special zone. After this spring’s flooding, the province said it would set an upper threshold for assistance at $100,000 over the lifetime of the house.

After that, homeowners face a choice: They can sell to the government, which will pay no more than $250,000, regardless of market value. Or they can get money to rebuild one last time — but in doing so, they forfeit any future financial assistance.

A demolition sign in Gatineau, Quebec. (Alexi Hobbs/The New York Times)

Canada’s constitution contains no explicit protection for private property like that in the United States, according to Jim Phillips, a professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. While the government is unlikely to seize someone’s home without compensation, it faces fewer constraints.

The U.S. approach “is much more generous to the property owner,” Phillips said. For example, a couple in New Jersey were awarded $330,000 this year after the government built protective dunes on beachfront property after Hurricane Sandy, on the grounds that those dunes hurt their ocean view.

This collision between the individual and collective good, between what’s fair and what’s safe, is playing out in Gatineau. In Pointe-Gatineau, a low-lying neighborhood where the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers meet, the 2017 floods caused entire clusters of homes to be demolished, leaving scattered houses surrounded by grass lots.

Then, this spring, as homes were still being torn down from 2017, the neighborhood flooded again. Myriam Nadeau, the local councilor, said the government had an obligation to help people leave. But that doesn’t have to mean the end of the community.

“There’s a memory to honor here,” Nadeau said one afternoon in July, sitting at a riverside patio on a patch of land was underwater a few months earlier. “I know it will never be what it was before. But it can still be something good.”

Afterward, Nadeau visited some of her constituents in Pointe-Gatineau, gauging their progress like a doctor doing her rounds. Residents here seem to fall loosely into two groups: Those who don’t want to leave, and those who want nothing more than to go.

Nadeau’s first stop was Benoît Charron, who in 2016 bought a house overlooking the water, hoping to turn it into a brew pub. When the 2017 floods destroyed the house, Charron refused a government buyout, which wouldn’t have covered his mortgage. Instead he rebuilt, going deeper into debt.

Charron’s gamble has paid off so far. The new building survived subsequent floods, and he hopes to open his pub this year. Asked whether he’s worried about his potential customers moving away, he shook his head. “People will always want to live close to the water.”

Not everyone agrees. A few blocks away, Benoît Guérette was still working on his house, which he decided to elevate after 2017 rather than sell to the government. The building now towers over its neighbors. But Guérette said this year’s floods convinced him that he had made a mistake staying.

“Look at the area, it looks like a bomb dropped,” he shouted through the window of his unfinished second floor. “I should have taken the buyout the first time.”

“In 2017, it was, ‘Please help us save my house,’ ” Nadeau said. Now, “they’re actually fighting to be offered to leave.”

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