Natural disasters, rising costs are Canada’s biggest public safety risk: documents

OTTAWA – The rising cost of natural disasters and the financial burden on Ottawa is the country’s biggest public safety risk, according to documents obtained by Global News.

What’s more, the government’s emergency response may not have the infrastructure to handle a large-scale event, and a federal program to help provinces pay for damage will be assessed for “sustainability,” says the document from Public Safety Canada.

Included in a briefing package obtained through access to information law, the document outlines the “top 3 risks” for 2013-2014.

And natural disasters – including the costs that come with them – are number one.

“The recent, dramatic increase in costs related to natural disasters indicates a broader trend in Canada and globally,” says the human resources and business plan, written by deputy minister Francois Guimont.

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“Worldwide costs of natural disasters have increased steadily from an annual average of losses of $25 million in the 1980s to $130 billion in the 2000(s).”

The document says the top risk is that rising costs related to disasters “may increase the federal liability” under the Disaster Finance Assistance Arrangements.

“The department will also assess the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) to ensure program sustainability,” the document says.

The arrangements set out the funding formula for the federal government to give money to provinces and territories to help with response and recovery costs.

Under the formula, Ottawa pays up to 90 per cent of the remainder of eligible costs. Since 1970, the government has paid out more than $2.3 billion, according to Public Safety Canada.

Recent events, such as the Alberta floods, show how expensive disaster relief can be, with estimates at $5 billion.

The second risk also relates to natural disasters and the government’s ability to respond to them through the Government Operations Centre, which provides federal emergency response to national events.

“The Government Operations Centre (GOC) infrastructure may be unable to support a coordinated response to large-scale or multiple significant events affecting the national interest,” it says.

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Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney did not respond to request for comment.

A department spokesman said the government committed in budget 2012 to discussions with provinces and territories to develop a national disaster mitigation program, “recognizing that mitigation can lessen the impact of natural disasters on vulnerable communities and reduce the costs associated with these events.”

Spokesman Jean Paul Duval said in an email the department has been “working diligently” to address the long-term needs of the Government Operations Centre, and an infrastructure solution is being developed.

“The Government’s response to a number of events this year, such as the flooding in Alberta, demonstrates our ability to manage the risk at this time,” he said.

NDP national defence critic Jack Harris said the Conservatives aren’t prepared for the rise in natural disasters.

“We don’t see this government taking seriously the notion that climate change is going to have more serious implications in the future,” he said.

“The coordination effort doesn’t appear to be there. There appears to be an ad hoc approach whenever something does happen.”

York University professor Ali Asgary, who teaches in the emergency management program, said governments should be reviewing all existing arrangements and looking into private sector sources that can contribute.

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“Including also the households and populations themselves, will have to probably set aside a certain amount of extra funding for emergency preparedness and mitigation purposes.”

He said the fact that the GOC may not be able to coordinate a response is “a real concern.”

“Disaster and emergencies are all about, really, coordination and communication,” he said.

The third risk outline in the document is that current policies and strategies may be “insufficient” to address the evolution of organized crime.

Other risks outlined by the department:

–         service that doesn’t meet expectations and needs of First Nations Policing Program;

–          may not have “the modern tools or mechanisms” for  law enforcement and intelligence agencies in emerging national security threats;

–          delay in information-sharing may lead to “ineffective coordination” of national response to cyber-security;

–          may not be able to identify and address emerging threats to Canada’s national security;

–          focus on the Beyond the Border (joint Canada-U.S. initiative designed to speed trade and protect against terrorism) may cause department to overlook other challenges related to border;

–          increasing complexity of Beyond the Border may lead to difficulties/delays in meeting commitments;

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–          forecasting and budgets may not responsive to risks, priorities and pressures.

The document also says the Government Operations Centre must be moved within the next three years.

“The GOC program is housed in a building that Public Works and Government Services Canada intends to remove from the federal government inventory within the next three years,” it says.

“As a result the GOC must soon be relocated to a new accommodation if it is to contribute to the department’s mandate.”

The department plans to develop a “National Resilience Strategy” over the next three years to help reduce “the occurrence and negative impacts of disasters.”

The strategy will involve in empowering citizens, emergency response, organizations, communities and governments to share the responsibility to prevent hazards from becoming disasters, the document says.

With files from Global News’ Jacques Bourbeau

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