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Feds blamed for poor response to evacuees

Single staffer shouldered burden 24/7

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Reports of unpaid hotel bills, made public by Gimli-based Misty Lake Lodge owner Michael Bruneau, didn't surface until months after the draft was finished.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Reports of unpaid hotel bills, made public by Gimli-based Misty Lake Lodge owner Michael Bruneau, didn't surface until months after the draft was finished. Photo Store

Months before the flood-evacuee fiasco made headlines, a federal review had already pinpointed problems with the handling of displaced Manitoba aboriginals -- and laid the blame on Aboriginal Affairs Canada.

The Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, the agency responsible for the delivery of assistance, largely escaped criticism in the explosive report posted on the Aboriginal Affairs website.

The report -- Review of the Performance of the Emergency Management Assistance Program during the 2011-2012 Manitoba Floods -- is based on an extensive review of documents and interviews with people directly involved in the evacuations. Its focus was the federal department.

The 33-page report concludes the problems with handling more than 2,000 evacuees stuck in hotels after extensive flooding on six Interlake First Nations, wasn't the fault of the First Nations or MANFF.

That agency, which handled the bills came in for a single criticism, also laid at Ottawa's door: "The funding arrangement with (MANFF) does not include (a requirement) for maintaining evacuee lists or a dispute mechanism (for) disagreements with evacuees."

The biggest problem was the department and its administrative process. The report concluded the regional office in Winnipeg was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of needs from so many evacuees during the extended period of time.

The emergency-management system essentially depended on one person, which is unreasonable given the breadth of the issues that arose during this emergency'

-- federal report on Manitoba flood evacuees

The report identified one key issue: The entire flood-assistance program fell on the overburdened shoulders of a single department official in Winnipeg. As a result, there was one problem after another.

"The emergency-management system essentially depended on one person, which is unreasonable given the breadth of the issues that arose during this emergency.

"The result was that the emergency-management co-ordinator was on standby 24 hours a day for months. (He) essentially spent his time trying to address each crisis as they came up... Every stakeholder group identified this as the key issue that needs to be resolved for the system to start functioning properly."

The dates of the report -- a draft of the internal review is dated June 2012 and an executive summary was done by January 2013 -- raise more red flags.

Those dates indicate federal officials knew months ahead of everyone else that assistance for evacuees and the flood-assistance program had broken down.

Reports of unpaid hotel bills, made public by Gimli-based Misty Lake Lodge owner Michael Bruneau, didn't surface until months after the draft was finished. It was only a few weeks ago Bruneau was finally paid more than $2 million in hotel and food bills for evacuees in Gimli and another hotel he owns in Ashern.

The report also suggested the extent of the disaster appeared to be far greater than anyone outside government imagined.

It showed Ottawa ponied up $84 million in total funding for evacuees and flood mitigation in 2010, 2011 and up to March 31, 2012. That sum exceeds the $70-odd million for First Nations that served as the public benchmark for disaster-assistance funding up to May this year.

And while most public statements focused on flooding at six First Nations, the problem affected more than four times that number of communities.

"During the 2011-2012 Manitoba flood, the federal government came to the aid of 27 First Nations with flood fighting and the evacuation of 12 communities."

More than 2,400 people were evacuated.

Interlake First Nations were particularly vulnerable to flooding because many were in the path of flood diversions built to protect Winnipeg, but they were also the least prepared to cope with them, the reported noted. "There were very few structural... measures in First Nation communities to limit the impact of floods," the report said.

The report suggested the federal government acted quickly to get people away from flooding, but it was a different story for the homes they abandoned. A combination of factors was to blame, including poor administrative planning, the absence of evacuation and flood-mitigation protocols and building practices that failed to take floods into account. When the one-in-300-year flood, hit, the communities were swamped.

The federal emergency-assistance program was relatively new, the review said, having been drafted in 2005. An evaluation in 2010 called for better links between the federal government and external agencies. But none of that was ready when the flood hit.

"It became clear that the emergency-management system was being stretched to the limit of its capacity and (emergency assistance) was not able to muster the required 'surge' capacity to deal with the situation in an effective way," the report concluded.

"Finally, a lack of clearly defined governance structure affected the co-operation with stakeholders necessary for an effective First Nations emergency-management system in Manitoba."

The report recommends a major overhaul of disaster assistance within Aboriginal Affairs Canada.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

With flooding a fact of life in Manitoba, what should the federal government do to better respond to that reality? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2013 A5

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