As threats increase, Alberta’s disaster risk assessment lacking: auditor general

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Several years after major flooding and fire catastrophes, Alberta lacks a proper risk assessment system to reduce the ravages of natural disasters, says the province’s auditor general.

A report found the provincial government still hasn’t acted to identify flood risks seven years after a deluge devastated parts of Calgary and southern Alberta.

Alberta’s progress towards identifying those risks and focus measures to counter them have been haphazard in recent years, putting Albertans and their property in danger at a time when threats, driven partly by climate change, have been exploding, says a report released Tuesday.

“We conclude that AEMA (Alberta Emergency Management Agency) does not have an effective system to co-ordinate the provincial hazard assessment,” states the report prepared by auditor general Doug Wylie’s office.

It says the need for a more effective assessment has been growing exponentially in recent years, with the costs of disasters to insurers and government increasing by 2,500 per cent in 2010-2016 compared to the previous six years.

That’s an increase to about $9 billion from $329 million, with an increasing share being borne by the provincial government, which covered $2.3 billion, it says.

Those costs were boosted by massive flooding in southern Alberta in 2013 and the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, both of which caused billions of dollars of damage and each displaced about 100,000 people.

The audit found that a hazard assessment started in the wake of the 2013 floods by AEMA, which quarterbacks emergency response within the Municipal Affairs Ministry, was “stalled” between 2016 and 2019 but restarted a year ago.

That included a draft framework and implementation plan but those recommendations on improvements dating back to 2011 “have weaknesses in its systems for monitoring the status of outstanding recommendations,” says the report.

In 2015, Wylie said his office urged the province to pinpoint where the greatest flooding risks were, but “five years later, the ministry has still not implemented our recommendation to conduct risk assessments to support flood mitigation decisions.”

A lack of updated flood maps, most dating back to the 1970s and ’80s, is a problem, said assistant auditor Brad Ireland.

And he said that despite his office’s recommendation, the province has failed to prohibit construction in known flood zones.

“So far, no regulations have come out to deal with that, it’s been left to municipal governments,” said Ireland.

But unlike Edmonton, the City of Calgary “has an effective disaster risk assessment process that supported its emergency mitigation and preparedness activities.”

It’s likely the result of the trauma the city faced in the 2013 flooding, said lead report author Michelle Fleming.

“Our review found that those places that have been through significant disasters tend to have better assessment from the risk perspective,” said Fleming.

The city’s assessment had resulted in an online forum to inform homeowners of the risk to their property, said Tom Sampson, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.

“The first thing is to identify the problem and then do something about it,” he said.

But frustration remains in the risk posed by Bow and Elbow rivers flooding, with a contentious dry dam at Springbank still stalled, said Sampson.

And there are other bright spots in the current system, such as guidance in identifying risks and a formula for analyzing them, said Wylie.

“However, the methodology stops there — it lacks a mechanism to evaluate hazards which is a critical step in comparing the level of risk exposure to an acceptable level of tolerance,” said Wylie in a video statement.

“It also lacks a step to identify hazard treatment options such as further mitigation measures or improved emergency management plans.”

He said 23 per cent of local authorities don’t have hazard assessments and of those that do, 24 per cent lack most of their essential elements.

Wylie urges establishing a system to develop and ensure hazard assessment provincewide and improving monitoring and reporting of recommendations following disasters.

“For the government to effectively reduce risk, plan for, and respond to, calamities like flooding, wildfires and pandemics, it must understand the extent of Alberta’s cumulative disaster risk now and in the future,” states the report.

“It must also understand and plan for the cascading and multiple effects a disaster can deliver.”

The report was conducted in 2019 and doesn’t touch on the June 13 hailstorm in northeast Calgary, causing $1.2 billion in insured damages and leaving many homeowners covering most repair costs.

Sampson said such severe storms are among the top 13 disaster risks facing the city.

“You can encourage people not to have plastic siding, buy Hardie board or stucco and put down your storm drains,” he said.

While the AG’s report also doesn’t include the current novel coronavirus pandemic, Wylie said the current medical crisis points to the need for improvements to the disaster assessment model.

Sampson said infectious disease has long been part of the city’s risk review, which has aided it during the pandemic.

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