After the rains, a touch of compassion
City’s flood grants among Ontario’s most generous
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
April 20: Water flows down King Street East in Dundas. The April 20 rainstorm was declared a disaster by the city.
May 5: A dyke is shored to contain flooding on Spring Gardens Road.
April 20: Rain-swollen Sydenham Creek spills over in Dundas.