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Government non-committal about boosting flood buyout packages in Grand Forks despite desperate appeal

Geoff Danish said he's going on his second winter in a damaged home awaiting buyout compensation. .
Geoff Danish said he's going on his second winter in a damaged home awaiting buyout compensation. . Submitted

The provincial and federal governments remain non-committal about boosting buyout packages for flood victims in Grand Forks, B.C., despite a desperate appeal from the community.

One hundred and 20 properties in the North Ruckle neighbourhood and surrounding areas hit hardest by catastrophic flooding last spring will be bought out, and the land returned to a wetland.

Nineteen months after the flooding, impacted residents say they’re still awaiting compensation and they’ve been left in limbo by the government.

Rally in Grand Forks over flood recovery.
Rally in Grand Forks over flood recovery. Jim Douglas/ Global Okanagan

Frustrated and emotionally taxed property owners took to the streets on Friday to protest the post-flood values they expect to receive for their homes.

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Grand Forks residents rally, say they remain in limbo over post-flood buyout plan
Grand Forks residents rally, say they remain in limbo over post-flood buyout plan

Previous appraisals have shown home owners could be left $50,000 to $200,000 out of pocket, according to rally organizers.

“Marriages are falling apart. Families are falling apart,” one protester could be heard shouting at the rally. “We need to get this resolved now.”

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On June 26, a joint funding announcement was made to support flood mitigation projects in Grand Forks. It included funds to reclaim and repurpose properties in flood-prone neighbourhoods and move residents to safer ground.

Jennifer Houghton stands in her flooded home indicating the high water mark with her hand in May 2018.
Jennifer Houghton stands in her flooded home indicating the high water mark with her hand in May 2018. Submitted

The province provided $31.5 million, the federal government $19.9 million and the local government $5.4 million in direct funding and land.

The money will also go towards reinforcing the river bank along the Johnson Flats channel, building new retention ponds in South Ruckle and constructing roads and trail dykes to manage flood waters within the city and by the railway tracks.

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But not enough funding has been earmarked to buyout properties at pre-disaster values.

As determined by appraisals conducted in late 2018, the City of Grand Forks said total pre-flood values for residential properties were assessed at $16.6 million, compared with $11.7 million for post-flood values, leaving a multi-million dollar shortfall.

The city said in preparing its grant application to the federal Disaster Mitigation & Adaptation Fund (DMAF), it advocated for property buyouts at pre-flood values, but the request “was not supported” by the federal government.

READ MORE: Grand Forks flood victims protest post-flood values in home buyout program

City officials turned to the B.C. government for increased financial support, but the request has gone unmet.

“We’ve asked very hard for re-consideration and we’ve been told that there is no way to ask for more funding for land from the senior governments at this point, it’s just not available,” said Graham Watt, the city’s flood recovery manager.

Grand Forks announces new buyout option for flood victims
Grand Forks announces new buyout option for flood victims

Global News reached out to the provincial and federal governments to ask if it would provide additional compensation to affected homeowners in the flood buyout program.

Neither Emergency Management BC (EMBC) or Infrastructure Canada responded directly to the question.

Infrastructure Canada, which manages the DMAF fund, said grant criteria stipulates only private land at ‘fair market value’ is eligible for reimbursement.

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“I don’t think that was actually built for an immediate post-flood situation where they’re significantly depressed,” Watt said of the program.

Deb Earle said her parent’s home was destroyed by flood waters in Grand Forks in May 2018.
Deb Earle said her parent’s home was destroyed by flood waters in Grand Forks in May 2018. Submitted

Infrastructure Canada said it is not involved in determining home buyout values and referred Global News to the city and the province for comment.

A spokesperson for EMBC said providing current market value based on ‘current conditions’ creates a level playing field and accounts for the fact that many owners had insurance or received Disaster Financial Assistance in the wake of the floods.

“Providing pre-flood values creates challenges where improvements were made to homes subsequent to the flooding, either through insurance, Disaster Financial Assistance or private funding,” the statement said.

Watt said flood victims have expressed that the post-disaster funding streams available are inadequate.

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READ MORE: Grand Forks announces new campaign, buyout option, for flood victims

“From the senior government’s perspective, they saw that the combination of disaster financial assistance and current market value after the flood together would be the amount that could make people whole, and that interpretation has been really strongly rejected by property owners here,” Watt said.

As extreme weather events brought on by climate change become more common across Canada, Watt said the country is not prepared to deal with disaster recovery from a policy perspective.

“I do see that there is a huge amount of policy work that needs to be done and funding brought in to make sure that we are actually able to get funding secured quickly after a flood to provide certainty to people,” he said.

He said post-disaster funding is only available through a piece-meal system.

Nearly $50 million announced for Grand Forks, BC flood recovery projects
Nearly $50 million announced for Grand Forks, BC flood recovery projects

“So this has been a very awkward and challenging situation because there hasn’t been that policy framework in place,” said Watt, “and we’ve had to wait for grants to try to piece together a plan forward and it has been absolutely hard on the individuals affected and hard on the whole community to go through it this way.”

As for insurance, Watt said at the time of the spring 2018 floods, only a quarter of insurance providers offered comprehensive flood insurance and it was expensive.

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“It wasn’t fully available and it wasn’t fully reasonable,” he said.

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“It has really been a problematic pathway for both property owners and businesses where there’s been a lot of varied mileage with the insurance companies.”

Watt said the city is doing everything it can to support flood victims. The city is offering a land trade option that would provide affected property owners with land and title for parcels of city-owned land located in other residential areas.

A mix of single-family, multi-family, and townhouse property types and locations are being considered by city staff, with a focus on those with lower-cost servicing, higher return on investment, and proximity to downtown and key amenities.

READ MORE: Mayor of Grand Forks, B.C., calls flood recovery buyouts ‘a serious issue’

“That is a pretty significant investment of city land and city resources and the opportunity costs in the future,” he said.

The city is also offering in-kind supports such as covering moving costs for homes and seeking partners and funding for new housing developments.

Watt said the city has selected a consulting firm that will create the land acquisition team and begin negotiating agreements with property owners in the land-acquisition area.

The consultant will be introduced at a meeting for affected property owners on Tuesday, Nov. 26, at the Grand Forks Curling Club.

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“I feel like we are turning a corner at this point where we are going to have a lot of those answers,” Watt said.

“They’re not asking for a hand out, they are asking for fair compensation.”