• Flooding in Calgary, 2013

    Flooding in Calgary, June 2013. As severe weather events become more frequent, more Canadians need to know their flood risk and take precautions, say researchers. (Photo: Darcy Gloer/Can Geo Photo Club)

Flooding, like snowfall in May, is usually just one of the minor nuisances that are part and parcel of springtime in Canada. But as more waterfront real estate is developed and severe weather events become more frequent, flooding is increasingly ending in costly heartbreak for Canadians — a report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer published last year estimates flooding results in more than $2 billion in losses every year. 

Those whose basements have so far stayed dry may be wondering if disaster could eventually strike their neighbourhood. But according to a recent study by the University of Waterloo, those who are most at risk of flooding often have no idea.

The researchers surveyed 2,300 Canadians, all of whom were living in areas deemed to be high risk under the federal Flood Damage Reduction Program. They found that 94 per cent of survey respondents were not aware that their houses were at risk of being flooded, and were not sufficiently prepared.

The problem comes down to a lack of accessible information. “We have no national strategy in Canada that property owners can access to better understand flood risk,” says Jason Thistlethwaite, a researcher on the study and professor at the University of Waterloo. “Homeowners are relying on flood plain maps that are outdated and inconsistent.”

Flood risk maps for individual municipalities are usually available to the public, but these may be incomplete, out of date, and hard to find. Municipalities may even be hesitant to release the maps publically — “There’s a concern that if people find out their risk, property values will decrease,” says Thistlethwaite. “But really, there isn’t much evidence for that.”

The study also found that more than three quarters of the homeowners agreed it's their responsibility to protect their home. Protection can come in the form of purchasing insurance that covers overland flooding — which most home insurance policies do not — or making small changes like checking the grading of their house and maintaining a sump pump.

“[Homeowners] need to think about flooding like they think about fire,” says Thistlethwaite. Most people have fire insurance, even if they never think it will happen to them.  

“We think flooding is still this epic, anomalous event,” he adds, but as recent disasters like the 2013 floods in southern Alberta and this year's widespread flooding in Ontario and Quebec have shown, that's not the case. 

The researchers want to see the federal government develop a cohesive and consistent strategy for communicating flood risk to Canadians and advising them on appropriate precautions. 

“The benefits of transparency on flood risk far outweigh the costs,” Thistlethwaite says. “It’s better to learn about it now than when it’s leaking through the cracks in your basement.”