Weren’t We Supposed To Talk About Infrastructure?

After the June 2013 floods that caused an estimated $400 million worth of damage to infrastructure in Calgary, the City:

…determined that a broad investigation of flood mitigation issues and responses was required. The City also decided that the investigation should be carried out by an arms-length body of experts who would bring to bear the most current knowledge available on these issues and who would extensively involve the public in their work. The River Flood Mitigation Program was established on those terms.

In order to lead the effort and to provide strategic direction, The City formed an Expert Management Panel as part of the mitigation program. The Panel gathered the input of many scientific and engineering experts, wide ranging public input and support from a number of City staff; from that, the Panel developed this report.

The panel was created in July 2013 and precisely a year after the floods, in June 2014, it issued its report, which contained 27 recommendations for the City of Calgary. As of June 2017, the CBC was reporting that roughly half of these had been implemented. In the introduction to its report, the panel again stressed that “Dialogue with Calgarians was a priority and included numerous community open houses and meetings with groups representing flood-affected communities.”


Source: Calgary's Flood Resilient Future http://www.calgary.ca/_layouts/cocis/DirectDownload.aspx?target=http%3a%2f%2fwww.calgary.ca%2fUEP%2fWater%2fDocuments%2fWater-Documents%2fFlood-Info-Documents%2fExpert-Management-Panel-Report-to-Council.pdf&noredirect=1&sf=1

Source: Calgary’s Flood Resilient Future (Click to enlarge)



Public input

I understand that Calgary is a much bigger city with far greater resources than the CBRM, but I think it’s constructive to compare and contrast Calgary’s expert panel approach to the CBRM’s response to the Thanksgiving floods of 2016. As the CBC reported on Tuesday, a year after the floods:

Mayor Cecil Clarke says extensive studies of flooding risk across the municipality are underway.

‘When we have those studies and we make them public, it’s not good enough to say we’re aware of it. We actually have to make the investments in the infrastructure, with our provincial and federal partners,’ said Clarke.

I’ll admit, it worries me that the mayor makes such a distinction between “having the studies” and “making them public,” seeing two steps where there should only be one, and I’m not sure who among us believes simply being aware of flood risks is good enough — I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same page about the necessity of spending on infrastructure.

What really strikes me about the CBRM process, though — besides the fact that a year later, the flood-risk studies are not yet completed — is the lack of public input into or knowledge of it. The on-air version of that CBC story cited earlier actually described the work as being done “behind the scenes,” which started me wondering about these studies. When were they commissioned? Who is conducting them? What’s their focus?

I asked all these questions of CBRM spokesperson of Jilliann Moore and she promised to “look into” it and get back to me. As of press time, she hadn’t but I will update this story when she does.


500-year event?

I actually went back to see what was said about flood risk and mitigation during the first post-diluvian council meetings and I found CAO Michael Merritt providing a “flood update” during the 15 November 2016 meeting (drinking game suggestion: take a drink every time he says “and such” or “basically”) but he doesn’t say anything about reports or studies. The Mayor explains at the end of the discussion that this was strictly an update on the emergency response to the floods, while “lessons learned” and “where we go next” were to be addressed at some unspecified future time and place.

Public Works Director Wayne MacDonald’s contribution to the discussion is to first assure everyone that the (unofficial) word they’ve received on the Thanksgiving Day floods is that they were a “500-year” event — meaning that in any given year, there’s a 1 in 500 chance of such an event happening —  and an “anomaly.”

That’s comforting if you don’t happen to know that Houston has been hit by three 500-year floods in the past three years (while the US experienced six 1,000-year floods in 2015-2016 alone). As Dara Lind explained in Vox:

Theoretically, the odds of a 1-in-500 event occurring three straight times are one in 125 million. Because Houston is a big city and the same spots aren’t necessarily reaching 500-year levels each time, those odds don’t quite apply — but we’re still…talking about events that FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] estimates to be vanishingly unlikely.

Either Houston is incredibly unlucky or the risk of severe flooding is a lot more serious than the FEMA modeling has predicted — and the odds of a flood as bad as the ones Houston has seen for the past few years are actually much higher than 1 in 500.

Given that severe storms are becoming more common, my money is on a problem with the modeling rather than Houston’s sheer bad luck — which means we probably shouldn’t count on the Thanksgiving floods being a 500-year event.

MacDonald later says that as Public Works completes the “above ground” repairs and moves on to the more problematic “underground” work, he will keep Council posted on their progress.

I either attended or watched most of the Regional Council meetings this past year and I couldn’t recall a flood update beyond that first one described above, so I went through the agendas of all last year’s Regional Council meetings, Special Council meetings and Planning & Economic Development meetings, looking for some discussion of “lessons learned” or “where we go next” or an update on flood repairs and mitigation from Public Works and I found nothing. The two council meetings following the November 15 meeting, in fact, were all about extending Harbor Port Development Partners/Sydney Harbour Investment Partners contract for another five years (which had to happen six months before their initial contract expired because MOMENTUM).

That, if nothing else, proves Council can get out ahead of things when it wants to (and even when some members don’t particularly want to). And yet, on the flood mitigation front, movement has been much less rapid. One year after the floods, the CBRM has yet to draft any new rules or regulations for development in Sydney’s hard-hit South End. The point may be moot anyway, because one South End homeowner has already been given permission to rebuild.

During that 15 November 2016 meeting, District 6 Councilor Ray Paruch, whose district includes the South End of Sydney, said infrastructure was the only subject Council should be discussing — a year later, I think it’s fair to ask when, exactly, that discussion is going to take place? And are we all invited?