Af­ter the rains, a touch of com­pas­sion

City’s flood grants among On­tario’s most gen­er­ous

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - MATTHEW VAN DONGEN mvan­don­gen@thes­pec.com 905-526-3241 | @Mat­tatthes­pec

The city has de­clared two weeks of on-and-off heavy rain a “disas­ter” to al­low flooded res­i­dents to ap­ply to a com­pas­sion­ate grant pro­gram that has handed out $5.3 mil­lion over 12 years.

While high cu­mu­la­tive rain­fall might stretch the def­i­ni­tion of the term “disas­ter,” city staff and coun­cil­lors of­fer no apolo­gies for sup­port­ing one of the most gen­er­ous mu­nic­i­pal grant pro­grams in On­tario.

Ot­tawa, Sud­bury, Durham, Hal­ton and Peel have all of­fered some ver­sion of grants for sewer backup vic­tims, but Hamil­ton’s $1,000 max­i­mum grant has fewer strings at­tached. (For ex­am­ple, it’s one of few cities that deems over­land flood­ing el­i­gi­ble for a grant.)

“Would a cou­ple of week­ends of heavy rain nor­mally trig­ger eli­gi­bil­ity for the pro­gram? No,” said John McLen­nan, the city’s head of risk man­age­ment. “But we’re talk­ing about a del­uge fol­lowed by heavy rain that more or less didn’t stop for sev­eral days. It’s hard to sep­a­rate the con­se­quences there.”

The city had pre­vi­ously de­clared an April 20 rain­storm a disas­ter af­ter parts of Hamil­ton saw a month’s worth of rain in a mat­ter of hours. More than 260 res­i­dents have made ap­pli­ca­tions for com­pas­sion­ate grants based on flood dam­age from that one rain­storm alone.

Last Wed­nes­day, Ward 5’s Coun. Chad Collins suc­cess­fully moved a mo­tion to al­low grant ap­pli­ca­tions from res­i­dents af­fected by rain­storm-re­lated flood­ing from April 20 to May 6.

While there have been no dra­matic del­uges since April 20, slow-but-steady rain dumped an­other 100 mil­lime­tres on the city over the next two weeks. (The 82 mm this month so far al­ready ex­ceeds the May av­er­age.)

Most grants are handed out be­cause of a spe­cific rain­storm. But the city has oc­ca­sion­ally la­belled a rainy range of days a disas­ter — no­tably, for heavy rains that fell be­tween mid-June and mid-Au­gust in 2008.

That soggy sum­mer racked up about 600 grants and paid out around $220,000.

Collins rep­re­sents the low-ly­ing beach strip, where res­i­dents have faced the dou­ble-whammy of high rain­fall to­tals and Lake On­tario lev­els that are higher than any time since the early 1970s. He es­ti­mates more than 200 res­i­dents there are deal­ing with base­ment or crawl space flood­ing.

The high lake lev­els are due, me­te­o­rol­o­gists say, to near-record rain­fall in the Lake On­tario and Lake Erie basins. So city of­fi­cials say they’re not sur­prised if base­ments on the strip are flooded due to a mix of high ground wa­ter and never-end­ing rain.

“At the end of the day we call it a ‘com­pas­sion­ate’ grant for a rea­son,” Collins said. “We’re try­ing to help res­i­dents deal with en­vi­ron­men­tal sce­nar­ios that are largely out of their con­trol. And given the im­pacts we’re see­ing from cli­mate change, I don’t see many peo­ple ar­gu­ing (the pro­gram) isn’t needed.”

The grant pro­gram has spurred de­bate in the past, though.

Staff warned coun­cil­lors they were set­ting a po­ten­tially costly prece­dent in 2015 when thy voted to ex­tend com­pas­sion­ate grants — about $90,000 to 172 ap­pli­cants, in the end — to res­i­dents with frozen wa­ter pipes dur­ing an ab­nor­mally frigid winter.

But the most dra­matic de­bate oc­curred af­ter the city’s most no­to­ri­ous storm in the last decade.

The July 26 storm in 2009 that fa­mously flooded thou­sands of homes, the Red Hill Val­ley Park­way and part of the QEW saw more than 90 mm of rain dumped on parts of the east end in a sin­gle hour. It re­sulted in the sin­gle big­gest com­pas­sion­ate grant pay­out in pro­gram his­tory: more than $3 mil­lion to 4,125 ap­pli­cants.

It also spurred a dra­matic coun­cil meet­ing walk­out by three coun­cil­lors up­set by a pitch from coun­cil­lors Collins and Sam Merulla to pro­vide fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion to all flood vic­tims with no max­i­mum limit.

One of the walk­outs, Maria Pearson, ar­gued the city couldn’t af­ford to give “blank cheques” to all res­i­dents af­fected by floods. Coun­cil later com­pro­mised, lim­it­ing the max­i­mum pay­out per ap­pli­cant, but also in­creas­ing it to the cur­rent $1,000.

Pearson calls her­self a “big sup­porter” of the pro­gram to­day, but doesn’t re­gret her con­tentious meet­ing-stop­per move. “Peo­ple need our help; that’s what the city is here to try to do,” she said. “But there have to be lim­its. You can’t bank­rupt the city, and all of us are pay­ing for these grants.”

Hamil­ton’s disas­ter as­sis­tance grant pro­gram was noted as an ex­am­ple of a “risk shar­ing” tool cities can use in the face of a grow­ing flood­ing chal­lenge due to cli­mate change in a re­cent pa­per pub­lished for the In­sti­tute of Mu­nic­i­pal Fi­nance and Gov­er­nance at the Munk School of Global Af­fairs.

The pa­per has far more to say, how­ever, on re­spon­si­ble land-use plan­ning, flood­plain reg­u­la­tion and charg­ing ap­pro­pri­ate fees to deal with storm wa­ter.

Merulla ar­gues Hamil­ton’s grant pro­gram shouldn’t be looked at in iso­la­tion. “It’s short­term, re­ally to­ken help for res­i­dents wait­ing for long-term in­fra­struc­ture solutions, which are a work in progress,” he said.

The city has also pro­vided mil­lions in sub­si­dies to help home­own­ers in­stall back­wa­ter valves to pre­vent base­ment flood­ing, for ex­am­ple. It has also spent tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in an on­go­ing ef­fort to up­grade un­der­ground in­fra­struc­ture in flood­ing hot spots.

One of the worst flood-prone lo­ca­tions used to be Merulla’s Ward 4, where home­own­ers “were be­ing swamped year af­ter year” in ar­eas

with ag­ing or in­ad­e­quate un­der­ground pipes — at one point prompt­ing the ward coun­cil­lor to threaten the city with a class-ac­tion law­suit. The grant pro­gram — and a ma­jor storm sewer study in the east end — kicked off in re­sponse to no­table flood­ing in 2004 through 2006.

Fast-for­ward to the April 20 storm — Merulla said he re­ceived only three calls about base­ment flood­ing.

“There was a time when that sort of rain would have meant lit­er­ally thou­sands of flooded base­ments in my ward,” he said.

“We’ve come a long way … but we can’t be com­pla­cent. There’s still work to do.”

We’re try­ing to help res­i­dents deal with sce­nar­ios that are largely out of their con­trol. COUN. CHAD COLLINS

CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

April 20: Wa­ter flows down King Street East in Dun­das. The April 20 rain­storm was de­clared a disas­ter by the city.

GARY YOKOYAMA, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

May 5: A dyke is shored to con­tain flood­ing on Spring Gar­dens Road.

CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

April 20: Rain-swollen Sy­den­ham Creek spills over in Dun­das.

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