Rebuilding efforts in the wake of last month’s flooding across southern B.C. have triggered a parliamentary debate about disaster-relief funding and emergency preparedness.
The debate kicked off in the House of Commons Wednesday, Dec. 1, when Richard Cannings, MP for South Okanagan—West Kootenay, said current funding models will saddle flood-stricken Princeton, B.C., with punitive recovery costs.
Drawing on a conversation with Mayor Spencer Coyne, Cannings told the House, “He’s deeply concerned that his community won’t be able to rebuild under traditional disaster funding, which forces municipalities to pay 20 per cent. A $10 million restoration would cost Princeton $2 million — a bill they would struggle to repay.”
Cannings, whose riding doesn’t include Princeton, then asked emergency preparedness minister Bill Blaire if Ottawa would set aside that requirement not just for the town of 2,800 souls, but also for the other small regional municipalities emerging from last month’s floods. Blaire in his response touted a “joint committee” he said would represent the provincial and federal governments as well as local mayors.
“Communication and co-ordination with those municipal leaders is going to be a critical part of our response,” he said.
Speaking from Penticton Friday, Dec. 3, Cannings said lessons from Grand Forks’ disastrous flood in 2018 show large gaps in what federal and provincial funding can do for a region in the grips of a worsening climate crisis. In particular, Cannings suggested that national and regional priorities need to shift more in the direction of emergency preparedness.
Citing his role as the federal NDP’s critic for emergency preparedness and climate adaptation, Cannings told The Gazette, “I personally take that mandate as meaning that we should prepare for natural disasters before they happen.”
Grand Forks had to make “very hard decisions” about how to rebuild after 2018, leaving residents in the city’s North Ruckle neighborhood “essentially forced to sell their homes” ahead of massive flood works paid for by the province as well as the federal government’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF). But DMAF is “under-funded and over-subscribed,” he said, especially in light of November’s cataclysmic floods.
Cannings said Ottawa funds DMAF to the tune of around $600 million every year, pointing out that the Insurance Bureau of Canada, an industry group that represents Canadian insurers, has estimated that guarding against “the worst impacts of climate change” could soon cost municipalities around $5.7 billion annually.
If DMAF is too small to cover those costs, Cannings added that the fund prioritizes rebuilding from natural disasters as opposed to building ahead of them. The federal government came through for Grand Forks after 2018 and will probably do so for communities like Princeton, he said, qualifying that it will always cost more to react than to prepare.
“Governments don’t like to spend money preparing for things they don’t know are going to happen — and may not happen during their next election cycle,” he said.
For now, Cannings said the federal government needs to make relief funds immediately available on the ground in places like Princeton and Merrit. Avoiding future calamities calls either for a separate stream under DMAF for pre-emptive measures, or a new fund altogether, he said.