Yukon government bungled flood response, documents show

Poor communication, disorganization and a lack of clear policy left Yukoners with no financial support from the government after their homes flooded in 2013, documents obtained by the Yukon News show.

Poor communication, disorganization and a lack of clear policy left Yukoners with no financial support from the government after their homes flooded in 2013, documents obtained by the Yukon News show.

Since then, the Yukon government has done little to improve how it responds to natural disasters.

In 2013, flooding affected 19 properties in Rock Creek, Ross River and Blind Creek.

In Ross River, Murray Reid lost his home and most of his savings along with it. Along Blind Creek, near Faro, Doug and Yasmine Hannah had to camp on higher ground for a week until the water receded. In Rock Creek, near Dawson City, Marie-Eve Owen’s garage, greenhouse, and guest suite suffered significant damage. Julia Bassett’s property also flooded, after she’d just moved in the previous fall.

After the flood, the properties were assessed for damages, which totalled close to $900,000. The Yukon government started working on a flood program to provide financial assistance to homeowners, as overland flood insurance isn’t available in the territory. But that program never materialized and the residents got nothing.

Now, documents obtained through an access-to-information request show that was partly because the Yukon government was unwilling to spend any money without an assurance that the federal government would reimburse it.

Some — but not all — of the properties had flooded before, in 2009. At the time, the Yukon government paid out some money for repairs, which was reimbursed through a federal program.

But the federal program won’t pay out money twice for the same home, unless substantial upgrades are made to flood-proof the property and it floods again anyway. The Yukon has no rules of its own about this, so the residents were never told they might only get compensation once.

Major upgrades weren’t made under the 2009 program, which offered grants of up to $25,000 per residence. The Yukon government therefore worried it would be on the hook for the more costly repairs needed in 2013.

This bureaucratic logjam meant the government ultimately didn’t assist anyone, including those whose homes had never flooded before.

It apparently never explained any of this to the residents.

* * *

The Yukon has no set policy for dealing with floods and other natural disasters. It deals with every case individually.

The government recognized back in 2013 that this was a problem, but has done nothing to prevent it from happening again.

In October 2013, Community Services drafted a document that considered whether the territory should have a permanent flood assistance program.

“Every year YG invests resources to deal with flooding … and the cost of this is steadily increasing,” it reads. “Adding to the complexity, these resources are managed by multiple departments without an overall strategy.”

It found that most Canadian jurisdictions have fixed disaster relief programs.

In September 2013, Michael Hale, then vice-president of operations for Yukon Housing, wrote an email about the issue to Michael Templeton, manager of the Emergency Measures Organization with Community Services.

“I … understand there was discussion of (Community Services) creating a permanent flood program,” he wrote. “Frankly, that would help everyone. We could provide some support, if you want to go that route.”

Nothing, it appears, ever came of that.

In April of this year, Stacey Hassard, the minister responsible for Yukon Housing, told the News the government would look at implementing a flood policy.

Asked about it again this week, Hassard simply hung up the phone.

Yukon Housing and Community Services both declined to comment.

* * *

Throughout this process, it seems residents were given inaccurate information or no information at all.

Bassett and Owen remember being told at a community meeting in 2013 that they weren’t going to get any flood compensation because the pot of federal money was going to the flooding in Calgary and to other communities in the Yukon, including Ross River.

But that’s just not true. Ross River residents didn’t get anything that year, either. And it seems unlikely that the Calgary flood had anything to do with the decision, because the Yukon never submitted an application for federal relief money in the first place.

Owen said she and her neighbours stopped hoping for any compensation after that meeting.

Meanwhile, Reid and the Hannahs waited for a response from the government for three years. They weren’t told they wouldn’t get compensation — they just weren’t told anything at all.

“The communication has been lacking (or) absent to say the least,” said Bassett.

* * *

In April, Hassard said the corporation had finally come up with a new source of federal funding that could help the 2013 flood victims. Yukon Housing sent out letters to 11 affected households with application forms for the new program.

This week, Hassard said the corporation has only heard back from one resident — Murray Reid.

“We can’t force people to respond to something,” Hassard said. “It’s something that we’re working through, and we’ll continue to work through.”

But it may not be that simple.

Reid still doesn’t know whether he’ll get any money from the program, because after waiting for weeks, he was told the money was for emergency repairs and he doesn’t have anything left to repair. In late July, he was told that another application form is being prepared for him, and he might get some money after all.

The Hannahs were told over the phone that they wouldn’t qualify because their income is more than $50,000. But briefing notes from April obtained by the News say the income cutoff was about $70,000, not $50,000. The Hannahs haven’t seen anything about the income threshold in writing.

Bassett said she intends to submit the application, but hasn’t yet because she’s been ill since April. She said she surveyed other Rock Creek residents to see if they’d received the letter, and only one neighbour had.

Owen never received an application. “We’d love to get some compensation if there’s some to be had,” she said.

* * *

There’s an obvious temptation to say people who build on floodplains shouldn’t expect the government to bail them out when their properties flood.

But most of Yukon’s communities were built on floodplains. According to Yukon Housing briefing notes from the fall of 2015, Yukon’s “flood prone areas” include Dawson City, Carmacks, Old Crow, Ross River, Mayo, Southern Lakes, Lake Laberge, Pelly Crossing and Whitehorse.

Bassett believes that if the Yukon government makes land available for residential sale in flood-prone areas, it bears some responsibility for the risk.

“I do know that our living there is the result of there being land titled and for sale in that area,” she said, acknowledging the risk of buying in Rock Creek. “This responsibility goes both ways.”

She said she and her husband have brought in more than 100 loads of gravel to berm up their property, have dug a drainage ditch in low areas and have jacked up their house more than 30 inches. Ideally, she said, the Yukon government would match their efforts.

And the government has bailed out flood victims in the past. In 2012, it bought out 11 properties near the Upper Liard River and spent $7.5 million in total. It spent $3 million on flood relief in the Southern Lakes in 2007.

By comparison, it doled out $160,000 during the Rock Creek flood of 2009.

“If some flood prone communities get funding during floods then all eligible communities should get it,” Bassett said.

* * *

Flooding in the Yukon is getting worse. And at the moment, the government has no real strategy to deal with it.

That’s not to say, of course, that residents are helpless. The Hannahs, Owen and Bassett have all made the repairs they can and gotten on with their lives.

But this has been a personal tragedy for Reid. His home had never flooded before, and then it was gone. He would likely have been eligible for federal support, but he never got it because of decisions that had nothing to do with him.

And he’s now living in a Whitehorse motel, still waiting for some glimmer of hope.

“Time just disappears on me,” he said.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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