Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politicians show up quickly, but not aid cash

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OTTAWA -- Five years ago, a newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper boarded a helicopter with the Manitoba premier to get a bird's-eye view of flood damage in southern Manitoba.

He got even closer in Morris, walking across the town's dike to catch a glimpse of the giant Red River lake amassing on the other side. It was there that a young mother pulled up towing a little boy in a red wagon.

When Harper asked the boy his name, he was told it was "Noah." "At that point I realized it was serious," he joked.

Fast-forward five years and a newly re-elected Harper is back in a helicopter again to view, for at least the third time since 2006, flood damages in southern Manitoba.

This time it is the massive Assiniboine sea in and around Brandon and Portage la Prairie. Harper doesn't need a Noah or an ark for symbolism this time.

There is simply water everywhere he looks.

Leaders touring disaster sites are a dime a dozen. It is one sure way to tell people who are suffering you hear their cries. It is about far more than just a photo op when the people making the decisions about what help will be offered see for themselves what is happening.

Harper and Premier Greg Selinger knew what to say.

There will be help from the government. Ottawa will step up with aid to try to mitigate these disasters in the future.

All that is good, but it is not exactly comforting to farmers and homeowners waiting with knots in their stomach for the water to arrive and then recede so they can assess the damage.

Confusion is rampant. One farmer said he called the province to ask about compensation packages and was told it's not certain because of the federal government. So he called the federal government and was told it's not certain because of the province.

Damage claims following the 1997 Flood of the Century took several years to sort out. Some homeowners filed lawsuits feeling they were unfairly excluded or the packages didn't cover enough. In particularly, homeowners outside the floodway who felt they were drowned to help protect the city of Winnipeg wanted more help.

Certainly there is a huge case to be made that anyone who so much as loses a rubber boot to artificial flooding caused by the intentional dike breach should be compensated.

However, current programs won't cover many things that will be destroyed. Premier Selinger has promised help for lost income and other costs but disaster programs in place now cap claims for primary residences, small businesses and farms at $200,000.

Second homes, things like fences and wages lost due the flood are all excluded.

How will a new program look and how quickly can it be created?

If history can be relied upon, developing new programs and seeing them to their conclusion will be time-consuming.

Just delivering the help from existing programs is laden with red tape.

In the last 40 years, Canada has paid out nearly $2 billion in disaster financial assistance, including $298 million in Manitoba. In just the last six years, the province has recorded 17 natural disasters where aid programs were established. All but four are related to flooding.

So clearly money flows at some point.

But it can take years.

It took until March 2008 for Ottawa and the province to finalize the compensation payments for flooding in southeastern Manitoba in 2002. Nova Scotia had to wait six years to receive the final payments from Ottawa for floods affecting parts of that province in 2003.

Disaster assistance for the damage from hurricane Juan, which hit Nova Scotia in 2003, wasn't finalized until 2010.

That doesn't mean individuals had to wait that long to get their money but it does mean the province is on the hook for years waiting for the disaster program negotiations to be concluded.

Considering how often natural disasters happen -- 17 in Manitoba alone in just the last six years have qualified for some form of relief payments -- you'd think the governments would be experts in this already.

It's time the provinces and Ottawa figured out a permanent solution, so the next time the waters rage, at the very least people won't be left wondering where they'll be if the worst-case scenario hits.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2011 A5

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