By Eva Bogdan
The 2013 flood impacted 30 communities in southern Alberta. The most severely hit was the Town of High River: over 13,000 residents were evacuated, 59% of the land was inundated by water and 70% of homes were moderately to severely damaged.
The greatest shortfall in Alberta’s recovery efforts was identified as the Disaster Recovery Program (DRP) for individual claimants (MNP, 2015, p.9). Alberta’s DRP provides financial assistance for uninsurable property damage, loss and other expenses resulting from a disaster “that helps return their property or contents to a basic, functioning level” (AEMA, 2016, 2017, italics added). DRP is available for homeowners, tenants, landlords, small business owners, not-for profit organizations, agricultural producers, public institutions and condominium corporations. In 2013, overland flood insurance was not available for homeowners in Alberta and DRP made up for the shortfall. DRP is funded through Albertan taxpayers and a cost sharing arrangement with the federal government. Three years after the flood, more than $145 million has been paid out to individuals through DRP. Albertans are fortunate to have the DRP available because in many countries such a program does not exist, and not all Canadian provinces are as generous (MNP, 2015). However, improvements are needed to enhance resilience in the short- and long-term for individuals and province-wide.
My research on perceptions and practices of flood management in High River following the 2013 floods revealed numerous areas for improvement of DRP, including two which are briefly described in this article:
1. Reduce the complexity and length of application processes; and
2. Provide opportunities to “build back better.”
These findings were consistent with those of official reviews of DRP (Auditor General, 2016; HR-DRPAC, 2015; MNP, 2015).
Two years after the flood, 2,000 out of 10,606 DRP applications were still open and unresolved (GoA, 2015). One research participant summed up the impact of dealing with DRP: “To be honest, every single person …says that it was not the disaster itself that has caused the most emotional stress and strain and general ability to move forward. It has been the DRP.” A private company, Landlink, was managing DRP and could not keep up with the number of applications following the 2013 floods. One of the challenges for such a program is that it is difficult to justify having many employees during non-disaster periods when the workload is low, but then having to quickly hire and properly train enough staff during a disaster is problematic.
The program was moved from Landlink to the department of Municipal Affairs in March 2014 and was given a one-year timeline. Landlink was under-capacity and did not clear outstanding DRP claims by the transition date; therefore, government staff inherited the problems and were then also overwhelmed. Applicants found inconsistencies in how eligibility was determined for payments and “were experiencing insensitivity, inconsistent information, lack of transparency, and unreasonable expectations to provide documents and information” (HR-DRPAC, 2015, p. 7).
One of the lessons learned was to not conduct such a transition during a disaster. Municipal Affairs has since then moved to an enhanced IT system and new case management model. The latter includes applicants dealing with only one case manager throughout the process rather than a new person every time they call and explaining their circumstances repeatedly. Recommendations for improvement also included training staff to be more compassionate and understanding towards applicants who have been traumatized by a disaster (HR-DRPAC, 2015).
“Build back better” is the motto of all levels of government in Canada, as well as international organizations (including the United Nations). However, in many cases DRP guidelines prevented homeowners, business owners, and agricultural producers from building back better. For example, some people wanted to change the design of their homes and the materials they used to be more floodproof. However, DRP payments only cover building back the same, meaning that applicants must pay out-of-pocket if they want to make improvements, which many cannot afford after a disaster. In some cases this makes sense since politicians have difficulty convincing Alberta taxpayers to pay for replacing marble-countertops (Ferguson, 2016). In other cases, floodproofing such as by jacking up a home or changing the basement design may prevent future damages and save money for homeowners, taxpayers, and insurance owners.
For homeowners that qualify for relocation out of the floodway, the DRP is available to them only as a one-time payment. Approximately 250 homes were eligible of which 10% accepted the buy-out. If eligible homeowners turned down the buy-out offer, they will not qualify for DRP in the future. There are homeowners and agricultural producers who wanted to relocate but did not qualify because on the 1992 flood map they were not located in the floodway. Many research participants and external reviewers have called for updated maps at the Government of Alberta (Auditor General, 2015).
Many stakeholders interviewed by me and by other reviewers expressed gratitude for the DRP assistance available in Alberta. Continual pressure from various organizations (Auditor General, 2016; HR-DRPAC, 2015; MNP, 2015) pushed for improvements to be made and maintained to enhance Alberta’s recovery from the 2013 floods and future disasters. The references below provide access to reports detailing recommendations and lessons learned which may be of interest to other jurisdictions.
Alberta Emergency Management Agency [AEMA]. (2016). Disaster recovery programs. http://www.aema.alberta.ca/disaster-recovery-programs
Alberta Emergency Management Agency [AEMA]. (2017). Disaster recovery programs. http://www.aema.alberta.ca/bem-drp
Auditor General. (2015, March). Report of the Auditor General of Alberta. https://www.oag.ab.ca/webfiles/reports/OAG%20March%202015%20Report.pdf
Auditor General. (2016, February). Report of the Auditor General of Alberta. https://www.oag.ab.ca/webfiles/reports/OAGFeb2016Report.pdf
Ferguson, E. (2016). Battle for flood relief dollars still raging for some Calgary residents. http://www.calgarysun.com/2016/06/19/battle-for-flood-relief-dollars-still-raging-for-some-calgary-residents?i10c.encReferrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNhLw%3D%3D
Government of Alberta [GoA]. (2015). Alberta government to resolve 2013 DRP flood applications by summer. https://www.alberta.ca/release.cfm?xID=3763027801212-E5AA-B89A-10EC647218B19C69
High River Disaster Recovery Program Advocacy Committee [HR-DRPAC]. (2015). Finish the job. Fix the system: Recommendations from High River for Alberta’s Disaster Recovery Program. http://www.bigstorycommunications.com/client/fixalbertadrp/resources/DRPAC-Report—FINAL.pdf
Meyers Norris Penny [MNP] LLP. (2015). Review and analysis of the Government of Alberta’s response to and recovery from 2013 floods. http://www.aema.alberta.ca/documents/2013-flood-response-report.pdf
Eva Bogdan is a PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.