Exploring Flood Proof Housing and Mitigation Strategies In the Comox Valley

By: Dale Robillard, Commandant Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue (CFSSAR) Ret’d. Email: dale.robillard@me.com

Picture1Canada’s cultural dependency on flood structures has made many communities at greater risk and vulnerable to flooding. Factors like climate change and urbanization are exacerbating flood threats. Flood damages and losses are increasing worldwide and disaster payouts are escalating as flood management performances fail. As flood management is failing to keep pace with a rapidly changing flood hazardscape many researchers (Balmforth, 2010, p. 97; Doughty-Davies, 1976, p. 69; Jeffers, 2013, p. 44; Tong, 2012, pp. 3-4; Williams, 2009, p. 105) are calling for a shift in management strategies. The call is for a more holistic and inclusive flood management paradigm. This shift is vital if Canada is to gain control over ever-increasing disaster payouts and communities are to safeguard their people and property.

A holistic flood management paradigm uses non-structural strategies to augment the traditional flood management structures in place today. Flood proof housing (FPH) is one of many non-structural flood protection strategies that have helped communities worldwide mitigate damage and loss at the property level. The consideration and implementation of FPH can help communities across Canada improve long-term flood management performance, while also reducing the ever-increasing need for disaster financial assistance.

This article shares the key findings and recommendations based on new FPH research. A copy of the full study is available at the Royal Roads University (RRU) library or from the researcher directly. This research was based using a case study approach of Oyster River on Vancouver Island B.C., a floodplain community. The research was developed to answer the following research question: Given the implementation of FPH in other developed countries, what are the obstacles that interfere with the community of Oyster River, as a representative of the practices set out by the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD) and the Strathcona Regional District (SRD), to consider and utilize FPH in its flood mitigation practices?

The Oyster River is a border community between the CVRD and the SRD. This riverine community was selected for a case study for three main reasons. Firstly, the Oyster River is subject to recurrent and severe flooding (EC, 2013, Designation section, table. 1). Secondly, a considerable portion of the Oyster River residential community has been constructed on the river’s floodways and fringes (B.C. Government, 2013, p 1). Thirdly, it was felt that this research would be more manageable if performed on a relatively small and autonomous deltaic community rather than the much larger flood threatened communities of B.C.’s Fraser Valley in the Lower Mainland B.C.

Research Aim

The aim of this research was to discover existing themes and patterns regarding the attraction to living in floodplains, attitudes of three key stakeholder groups (i.e., government officials, housing industry professionals, and affected citizenry), and obstacles and barriers (real or perceived) to the consideration and implementation of FPH in flood protection programs.

Secondary questions used to guide the research were:

  1. Why is it important to identify solutions to reduce flooding social and economic losses?
  2. What DEM framework does Canada use for flood management and mitigation and is it conducive to the consideration and implementation of FPH in the CVRD?
  3. What are the existing FPH options available today and what types would be most suited to the Oyster River floodplain in the CVRD and SRD?
  4. What recommendations can be offered to the CVRD through its Advisory Planning Commission (APC) and to the SRD to strengthen local flood mitigation programs, encourage greater citizen engagement and cooperation, and provide community planners with more sustainable development options?
Methods

This research was conducted using a two-phased qualitative approach and thematic content analysis (TCA). A qualitative methodology approach was chosen based on its inherent facility to investigate unexplored phenomena and relationships; as well as, its ability to answer the: who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. The first phase consisted of a comprehensive literature review that helped shape the research design and formed the basis for reviewing and comparing the research findings.

The second phase was dedicated to organizing and completing key informant interviews and focus groups; and developing codes for TCA using QSR NVivo 10 software to “manage, shape and make sense of unstructured information” (NVivo, 2014, para. 3).

Ultimately, data was collected from small groups within local government (i.e., local Chief Administrative Officer, Electoral Area Director, Emergency Coordinator, Senior Manager of Engineering Services, Manager of Planning services, and Assistant Manager of Planning Services); residential professionals (i.e., Hydrologist, Mortgage Specialist, Realtor, Residential Home Designer, and Residential/Commercial Architect); and floodplain property owners of the Oyster River. The subsequent analysis used a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning, which worked very well for developing the expansive codes from the social, legislative, and regulatory aspects of this research (O’Leary, 2009, p. 113).

Findings

Analysis revealed that a lack of knowledge exists throughout all flood stakeholders concerning the impact humans can have on flood risks and vulnerabilities. Key themes that emerged from the research highlighted: (1) misinterpretations as to why floodplains are an attractive place for residential development; (2) issues of governance and the attitudes of officials; (3) little knowledge of FPH options; and (4) miscellaneous issues regarding FPH.

The Attractions to Floodplains. Floodplains throughout the world have always been an attractive place for residential construction, despite the increased risks and vulnerabilities to flooding. To improve flood management performance decision-makers must gain an understanding of why floodplain development is so popular if escalating flood damages and losses are to be more effectively addressed.

The data indicated that the reasons people were attracted to live in floodplains ranged from psychological (e.g., a sense of being connected to, or spiritually uplifted, by water’s presence) to utilitarian (e.g., historical factors based on needs such as food, transportation, water). The most prevalent reason given by research participants why people may live in, or near, floodplains was quality of life. Those participants described floodplain living as including the peace of tranquility surrounded by the beauty of nature. One participant, offered that “people are always attracted to water, whether it’s beach or beachfront or ocean or river… people will sacrifice other things to be near water… people that live, build on the floodplain is (because) they want to be near water” (VP08).

The second most popular response by participants for living in, or near, floodplains was based on historical precedent. In a participant’s own words, “The reasons for living in the floodplain usually, [is because] communities are built there, farms are there originally because the land is usually fertile, good access to water, and the land is usually generally flat and easy to build on.” (VP11).

Why do floodplain developments exist? This is an important question to consider because without a clear understanding of the answer, it is difficult or even impossible to effectively make decisions regarding the use of FPH. In general, these findings mirrored the literature (Loe, 2000; Lyle, 2001; Wardekker, et al., 2010), however, with rising flood disaster costs it is questionable as to whether or not the discussions around the benefits of floodplain living are being appropriately interpreted. It seems that participants and researchers alike may be depicting “floodplain living” as being somehow synonymous with “ocean, lake, or river front living.”

The idea that floodplain properties are all picturesque and tranquil waterfront retreats is misleading. Additionally it is also misleading to consider that floodplain living is a choice based on aesthetics. Although, floodplain living can be a choice based on beautiful vistas and tranquil settings, this may seldom be the case. Many researchers (Balmforth, 2010; Doughty-Davies, 1976; Jeffers, 2013; Tong, 2012,) describe floodplain properties as indistinguishable from non-floodplain properties. To see the majority of floodplain living any differently can be extremely problematic and detrimental to flood management decision-making and to the consideration and implementation of FPH.

Unrealistic positive interpretations of floodplain residences are likely to desensitize community decision makers and government officials as to the real reasons people live in floodplains (e.g., affordability, transportation, poverty, rental availability). Current research indicates that residents are often unaware or surprised they live in a floodplain. In these cases it is reasonable to assume residents would be unaware of existing flood risks and vulnerabilities as well. The reality is that floodplain living is more about affordable housing and access to transportation routes than it is about scenic beauty. This is an extremely important distinction to understand, as local government’s decisions can be different (i.e., for or against FPH) depending on the perspective used (Balmforth, 2010; Doughty-Davies, 1976; Jeffers, 2013; Tong, 2012,). A more informed understanding of why people are living in floodplains is likely to reshape decision making from a governance perspective and open the door to more innovation towards alternative flood mitigation strategies like FPH.

Governance and Official Attitudes. Complex interdisciplinary communications, legislative and regulatory mechanisms, misunderstandings of why flood threats exist, and how or who should deal with them emerged as key obstacles to FPH. Without improvements within these areas, strategies like FPH, will never reach the thresholds of consideration. Findings indicated that Canada’s governmental and political framework is overly complex, confusing, and not necessarily conducive to achieving long-term goals or a rapidly changing environment.

Government Issues. A key barrier to FPH is Canada’s floodplain management legislation itself. This legislation so strongly discourages floodplain development that it functions as a disincentive for community planners to consider options like FPH. Sheaffer, et al., (1967) when addressing the issue of developing in floodplains argued the emphasis should focus on “promoting proper use, rather than on prohibiting use” of floodplains and continue to suggest, “flood proofing can be a useful element in flood plain regulations” (p. 2). While some communities do not have the need to consider FPH, others do, and still more will in the future because of the rising trajectory of flooding.

Legislation that is single-focused tends to have a built in inflexibility to adapt to changing environments. It also impedes the energy needed to motivate new and innovative approaches like FPH. The rigidity of legislation and regulations is an extremely important factor to consider because despite clear language that discourages building in floodplains, many floodplain communities already exist, and more are being developed everyday (Lyle, 2001). Studies show that in the Fraser Valley alone there are in excess of two million people living in floodplains or behind aging and inadequately engineered structures that are under great risk of flooding (Lyle, 2001, p. 6). Legislation that discourages property level flood protection like FPH literally puts residents under greater risk for higher potential flooding losses.

Political Issues. Politics motivate community growth, economic development, and sustainability of all communities. The popularity and longevity of a politician’s reign relies on a delicate balance between budgets and constituents’ interests. Since political decision making is dependent on multiple relationships and community priorities, compromise and timing often determine which issues take priority. In respect to flood management it is often difficult for politicians to justify the allocation of funds and energy toward future risks when immediate social demands are first and foremost in constituents’ minds.

It is equally difficult for politicians to have the will to deal with long-term issues that often have little political value because of relatively short terms in office. To effectively deal with emergency and flood management issues (i.e., FPH) requires a deep understanding of community’s flood threats; risks, and vulnerabilities; and the political will to act in the present for future protection. Although this is a difficult dilemma, long-term and forward thinking documents like Official Community Plans (OCP), Local Area Plans (LAP), and Sustainability Plans can help politicians validate and defend decisions regarding distant concerns.

Existing Knowledge of FPH. Throughout the world, little knowledge exists concerning FPH as a flood mitigation measure and Canada is no exception. As a result, in regards to FPH, it seemed that opinions often got touted as facts (e.g., the reason why FPH is not often considered is because it is unnecessary, too expensive, aesthetically unappealing or lacks local support). As opinions form worldviews, thinking in this way can have a negative effect on FPH decision making. While general knowledge of FPH, or amphibious type architecture, is lacking in Canada, there are many resources that can explain the archetypes. FPH is well researched and designs are well thought out from an aesthetic and engineered perspective.

One of the predominant users of FPH is the Netherlands (Brouwer & Van Ek, 2004). The U.S. also has examples of FPH being used; recent events like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy have inspired a greater interest in this type of architecture. Canada has failed to proactively follow suite and has done little to innovate in this area of flood mitigation. However, Emergency Management B.C. (EMBC) in association Delcan (a private company), have taken steps to look more closely at FPH to bolster flood management in the province (Delcan, 2012). FPH subject matter experts from the Netherlands have been sought to enter into dialogue, offer advice, and share experience in the use of amphibious architecture.

Recommendations

The research made five recommendations to the CVRD and SRD see how FPH could improve local flood mitigation programs, encourage greater stakeholder cooperation, and provide community planners with innovative options for future more sustainable development. The recommendations were: to introduce an integrated flood management educational program; improve overall communication; seek more adaptable flood management processes at the local level; consider opening up a dialogue regarding comprehensive flood insurance; and possibly implementing a co-venture FPH pilot project with EMBC. The overall concept was to inspire interdisciplinary collaboration, think beyond status quo flood management, and become more inclusive and informed regarding flood management and flood trends.

Recommendation #1: Integrated Community Education. This research exposed a general misunderstanding of how people see, react, and prepare for floods and a misconstruction of why people are drawn to live in floodplains. Overcoming gaps in knowledge is extremely important as gaps could have a profoundly negative impact on flood management decisions. In the case of the CVRD and SRD, this gap looks to have contributed to a general lack of interest in considering FPH in community strategies. Improved education can help to eliminate knowledge gaps, which currently serve as a barrier to considering FPH.

Communities are not best served through exclusive education. Therefore to achieve peak flood mitigation performance an inclusive and integrated education program was recommended for all flood stakeholders (UNISDR, 2013). This style of education would raise overall knowledge of human flood culture and climate change, and the compounding affect these phenomena can have on flood risks and vulnerabilities. A side benefit of integrated learning is the potential for greater trust, teamwork, and respect amongst all stakeholders – key factors that can assure short-, medium-, and long-term flood management decisions are more informed and supported.

Recommendation #2: Communication Performance and Policy. The key to success in any social environment is the ability to communicate clearly and positively. It should be no surprise that the second recommendations reiterates the importance of communication as achieving the most from human resources and capacities is a must. This recommendation looked at communications in two distinct areas: (1) general communications; and (2) communications policy.

General communications recognizes that traditional disciplinary boundaries in government and politics have historically formed obstacles to change (Shrubsole, 2000).  Disciplinary boundaries have been a major factor in sabotaging Canada’s full transition to a holistic flood management (Balmforth, 2010; Doughty-Davies, 1976; Jeffers, 2013; Loe, 2000; Tong, 2012; & Pinter 2005). Shrubsole (2000) argues a culture of conflict and poor communication proliferates within flood management environment. Failure to address this form of failed communication can create insurmountable barriers where none previously existed.

The recommendation therefore is to encourage improved interdisciplinary relationships. Growth here should improve empathy and respect across all disciplines, which can pacify the sometimes harmful emotions and frustrations that can hinder progress. A key aspect on moving forward would be to work on translating complex government and local policy into laypersons’ language. Changing the language can help limit intimidation factors often experienced by citizens when dealing with complex government processes especially in stressful times (Dewing et al., 2006; Shrubsole, 2013). Removing feelings of intimidation could open the door to greater communication and improved community engagement.

Communications policy recommendation was the concept of introducing a communication policy specifically for the local government. The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach (Hammond, 1998) was suggested but other styles encouraging positivity would also suffice. The AI approach, which Whitney and Trosten-Bloom (2010) contend uses human systems success approach that concentrates on acknowledging what is working rather than what is not. If using the AI approach stakeholders would be afforded certain conditions and freedoms: (1) Freedom to be known in relationship; (2) Freedom to be heard; (3) Freedom to dream in community; (4) Freedom to choose to contribute; (5) Freedom to act with support; and (6) Freedom to be positive (Whitney & Trosten-Bloom, 2010, p. 270). The aim of this recommendation would be to encourage local government to establish a communication strategy at all levels of flood management to best capitalize on community strengths, its processes, and people to achieve optimum results.

Recommendation #3: Adaptable Flood Management. Often in flood management the desire to help and accomplish key activities is foiled by complex and inflexible and non-adaptive policy. A recommendation to simplify and streamline flood management processes was strongly encouraged. Cashman, et al. (n.d.) sees the government’s complex delegation of authority, inter-jurisdictional hurdles, and staged multi-agency approaches as a significant barrier to making communities more resilient to flood threats (pp. 13-14).

Improving jurisdictional collaboration and interoperability (e.g., adopting the same or similar bylaws and flood management frameworks) can have a profoundly positive affect on process efficiency. Pre-event inter-jurisdictional planning and delegation of authorities could streamline processes and optimize flood protection. The ultimate goal would be to ensure jurisdiction aside that flood events are aptly and efficiently dealt with.

Recommendation #4: Consider Flood Insurance. Currently overland flood insurance is not available in Canada, although it is currently being actively debated between industry and government (Beeby, 2013, para. 1). Flood disasters over the past 15 years have become the insurance industry’s largest disaster payouts. As stakeholders gain a strong understanding of Canada’s flood insurance and the reasons for and against such a move, they would become more informed as to how impactful floods have become to Canadian society and by the escalation of federal and provincial post-disaster payouts (i.e., uninsured losses). Beeby (2013) says “Canada is the only G8 country where this so-called overland flood insurance is simply not available in the private sector” (para. 4). Loski (2012); Lyle (2001); and Sandink (2013) argue a comprehensive flood insurance plan could definitely improve flood mitigation in Canada.

Should the insurance industry consider comprehensive coverage, liability for flood damage would shift from the government to individual property owners. Property owners would have to meet certain insurance requirements in order to get home protection. From a DEM perspective this change could be the innovation stimulus needed to improve property level flood protection initiatives like FPH (Swiss Re, 2013a). The need for insurance coverage could also be the catalyst to improve the general awareness of flooding and floodplain awareness, and provide property owners and their communities with greater flexibility to achieve sustainable growth (Lyle, 2001; Swiss Re 2013b).

Recommendation #5: Consider FPH as a Component of Flood Management. As floods continue to outperform flood management practice it becomes important to consider alternative means of protection. Sheaffer, et al., (1967) contend that the extent to which floods impact society is proportional to a given community’s flood hazard education, experience, and willingness to implement mitigation strategies (p. 3). Although this statement was made close to fifty years ago, it still holds true today and forms the basis of the last recommendation. This last recommendation encourages all flood stakeholders to become more familiar with FPH or amphibious architecture by: (1) improving personal awareness FPH concepts and designs; (2) creating an inventory of existing FPH within the community; and (3) consider the opportunity to build a FPH pilot project in association with EMBC.

Improved awareness of FPH concepts and designs will help individuals, planners, and contractors confidently rule in, or rule out, the use of FPH as a component of local flood management. Existing research indicates that flood management portfolios that include alternative strategies like FPH have proven beneficial to a community’s flood resilience (Fenuta, 2010). When considering the option of FPH, stakeholders should not immediately dismiss the use of FPH, as the benefits may not be readily apparent. Hans Venhuizen, a Dutch architect says “‘amphibious living [FPH],’ is a concept that abandons the need to control water” (Fenuta, 2010, p. 1). This statement reinforces why it is important to understand FPH before dismissing or including it in flood mitigation.

Conclusion

This article represented the concept of using FPH as a mitigation strategy in the wake of escalating flood hazards and poor flood management performance. The aim of the research was to determine the role FPH has, or could someday play in improving community flood mitigation. Flood contexts were reviewed along with Canadian flood management frameworks; FPH concepts and designs; and attitudes of flood stakeholders regarding flood management from a FPH perspective. A comprehensive literature review, qualitative case study (i.e., Oyster River), and TCA uncovered sober misunderstandings within flood management, as well as, overly complex frameworks, and a lack of FPH knowledge are key obstacles to holistic flood management and the use of FPH.

Scholars and practitioners argue a shift to a more holistic flood management paradigm (i.e., using both structural and non-structural strategies) is required if mounting flood disaster payouts are to be reduced. Countries like the Netherlands that have made the shift to a holistic flood management paradigm are demonstrating marked reduction in flood impacts (Pinter, 2005, p. 208). Research finding indicated that structural flood management has neutralized innovation and ability for communities to reduce flood risks and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, until a flood emergency actually happens, issues of DEM, a new flood management paradigm, and FPH will fail to meet the all-important political threshold.

Although this research essentially focused on FPH but more importantly it may have discovered universal obstacles that have kept Canada from successfully transitioning to its longtime goal of holistic flood management. The recommendations made as a result of this research are not necessarily unique to FPH, or flood management, and could apply in many situations

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Dale Robillard is also a SAR Tech Leader 103 Rescue Squadron Gander Newfoundland Ret’d., SAR Tech Ret’d, Paramedic  Ret’d., Rescue Diver Ret’d., Military Communications Specialist