Yukon government hints at help for flood victims waiting since 2013

Yukoners whose homes were damaged by flooding on the Pelly River in the spring of 2013 may be getting some compensation, after the Yukon government left them in limbo for nearly three years.

Yukoners whose homes were damaged by flooding on the Pelly River in the spring of 2013 may be getting some compensation, after the Yukon government left them in limbo for nearly three years.

Stacey Hassard, minister responsible for the Yukon Housing Corporation, said the government will also look into developing a policy to deal with future floods.

The Yukon Housing Corporation says residents may be eligible for up to $50,000 each through an emergency repair program for affordable housing, part of an agreement it has with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“The emergency housing program will consist of non-repayable grant funding for restoration, replacement or repairs to principal residences in need of immediate repairs,” said Housing Corporation spokesperson Doug Caldwell.

Caldwell said 11 letters have already been sent out to affected residents with application forms for the funding.

The news was cautiously welcomed by some of the affected residents. Murray Reid, who lost his home and a rental property in Ross River during the flood, said $50,000 would help him buy a new house in Faro.

Reid has been living on social assistance since the flood, and is now in the process of applying for social housing. He said he hasn’t been able to work because of hip replacement surgery. Before the flood, he’d been counting on his rental property for income.

Reid stayed in a trailer on his property for two years after the flood, thinking that he’d be hearing from the government about financial assistance. It wasn’t until last fall that he moved out, when he was faced with the prospect of another cold winter without a real home. He’s now staying in a Whitehorse motel.

Doug Hannah, who lives outside Faro, said the money could help him rebuild his home on higher ground. He estimates the total cost of the construction at about $130,000.

“We can’t really afford it right now,” he said. “I think with that (funding), that would take quite a burden off us, for sure.”

However, because the funding is coming out of an affordable housing program, it will likely only be available to residents below a certain income threshold. Caldwell said that could mean that residents who might have received compensation under previous flood programs will not be eligible because their income is too high.

This is not the way the territory has dealt with flooding in the past.

Typically, if the Yukon government decides to compensate residents after a flood, it creates a disaster assistance program. It then applies to the federal government for reimbursement through disaster financial assistance arrangements between Ottawa and the provinces and territories.

But in this case, that didn’t happen. And now it’s too late, since the federal government has a six-month deadline after the natural disaster. Despite multiple requests made by the News to different departments, the Yukon government has given no real explanation for why there was no program created back in 2013.

Matt King, vice-president of operations for Yukon Housing, suggested to the News in March that Yukon may not have created a program because it didn’t think the funds would be reimbursed by the federal government. Federal assistance only kicks in when the territory’s expenses are quite high.

“So normally what happens with other flood events … is that there’s an application made to Canada and if the funding is recoverable through Canada then the government is in a position to allocate extraordinary funds,” King said.

But a spokesperson for Community Services, the department responsible for applying to Ottawa, said there was never any application to the federal government because Yukon didn’t create its own program in the first place.

“We didn’t have a disaster assistance program, so we can’t make a request,” said Amanda Couch. “We can’t be reimbursed for a program that doesn’t exist.”

Caldwell said he thinks there was an expectation that Yukon Housing would create that program, but he said that’s not the corporation’s role. “We didn’t do it. The department responsible for it (Community Services) should have but didn’t.”

Amid the finger-pointing, the fact remains that the affected residents spent nearly three years with no new information. The Yukon government was never obliged to compensate them – it could have told them back in 2013 that there would be no financial assistance. Instead, they were told nothing at all.

“If I would have known that I was waiting this long … when I first moved in to the trailer, I would not have stayed there for the winter,” said Reid. “I would have had other plans. I would have got out of there.”

Earlier this year, the News reported on the results of an access-to-information request that included briefing notes from 2013 stating that Yukon Housing and Community Services were working together on a flood program for that spring. The documents also indicated that Hassard, MLA for Pelly-Nisutlin, had told a resident that a flood program was being developed.

At the time, the News made multiple requests to speak with Hassard, which were denied. When the News approached him in person at an event in March, Hassard said he didn’t recall “ever telling anyone that there was any program in place.”

But now, Hassard says the government will take steps to make sure this situation isn’t repeated.

“I’m happy that we were finally able to assist the citizens that were in this situation, but of course I’m also disappointed that it took as long as it did,” he said.

“I think that it’s important that we have a clear policy in place and it’s definitely something that we as a government need to work on and implement.”

Hassard said that policy would likely require the Yukon government to make a decision about flood responses within six months of an incident, similar to the federal guidelines. He said there might also be a line item in future budgets for flood relief funding, so the government wouldn’t be dealing with each flood on a case-by-case basis.

But that policy likely won’t see the light of day before the next election. For now, this new funding that might help Reid and Hannah is sort of a stop-gap measure.

Reid said the money would help, though it won’t come close to the value of everything he lost, which he estimated at $90,000 back in 2013. But he’s angry about how much time this has taken.

“I’ve never been scared in my life, and the last three years I’ve been really scared,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “I never felt old until recently. My hair went grey, just like that – it was almost like overnight.

“Just stress and being mad all the time.”

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