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Strong leaders act before disaster strikes

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Leadership like that shown by Duff Roblin and Gary Doer may have mitigated the flooding in Alberta.


Leadership like that shown by Duff Roblin and Gary Doer may have mitigated the flooding in Alberta.

If you ever wanted to know what would have happened to Winnipeg if Duff Roblin failed to build the Red River Floodway, you need only examine recent flooding in southern Alberta.

A particularly robust spring melt in the Rockies, saturated ground conditions and a deluge of precipitation combined to create the worst flood in Alberta's history and the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history.

It was not long after the floodwaters started to recede that local media reminded Albertans the damage need not have been so severe. Following a flood in 2005, then-premier Ralph Klein commissioned a special report on flood preparedness, containing 16 recommendations on improving flood forecasting and protection, and controlling development in flood-prone areas around Calgary.

You can probably guess the punchline. Despite a big initial push, the report was mostly ignored. Individual municipalities did take protective measures on their own, but there was no concerted effort to protect Calgary and surrounding communities.

The Alberta crisis underlines the courage and vision of former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin for waging the political battle of his life in the 1960s to build the Red River Floodway. We can also commend former premier Gary Doer for expending enormous amounts of financial and political capital in the 2000s to expand the floodway.

The floodway has, even by conservative estimates, saved many billions of dollars in damages to property, GDP losses and long-term infrastructure woes. Few, if any, would criticize the work of Roblin and Doer now. That does not mean it wasn't a tough decision at the time. And it continues to be a challenge to invest money against a threat that has not fully materialized. Even in Manitoba, the province that can boast about the ambitious leaders who protected the capital city from disaster, we show signs of not learning from our own successes.

The NDP government released this spring a multi-year plan to invest $1 billion in additional dikes, outlets and diversions to deal with flood threats across the province. The list included some projects outside of the Winnipeg region that have been on the drawing board for years, but never realized. However, the flood of 2011, the costliest in Manitoba history, convinced the province to pull all necessary projects together.

The province then followed that announcement with a budget that featured a one-point increase in the provincial sales tax, with some of the additional revenues going to flood projects. You can likely guess what happened next.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives immediately laughed off this assertion that the province needed more money to fund flood protection. The Tories have been resolute that the costs of fighting floods, or planning for future floods, are manageable expenses. They have also been firm in asserting that these costs are not acceptable excuses for running a deficit. They even went as far as to argue that the absence of spring flooding -- the province suffered virtually no significant run-off flooding this year after fearing it would be severe -- was further proof the flood threat was a canard. "(The flood threat) is an excuse for jacking up taxes," Tory Leader Brian Pallister said in late April. "Nothing more." To be fair, the Tories are currently the most popular political party in Manitoba, and some of that support is no doubt due to the NDP's unpopular decision to raise taxes to fund infrastructure. The Tories oppose the PST hike outright, and although they do support strategic investment in flood protection, it's hard for them to find any nobility in anything connected to a tax hike.

The people we pay to forecast natural disasters, when that's possible, and to devise the tools and methods of mitigating their impact live by a simple rule: If you wait until the disaster arrives to protect yourself, it's already too late. However, as we are seeing in Alberta, and continue to see in Manitoba, making investments in flood protection is very difficult unless -- and this is the big "unless" -- you have just suffered a natural disaster or there is clear and present danger of one manifesting.

In Alberta right now, with many communities still suffering flood conditions, there is political consensus to find and spend money to improve flood defences. However, Alberta Premier Alison Redford will have to move quickly because that consensus will begin to recede, much like the floodwaters. If she waits too long, history and human nature dictate that other priorities will be found and necessary flood-fighting improvements will not be made.

It would be great if we lived in a world where we planned ahead and invested in the things that would protect us before we actually needed protecting.

The reality is that, often, we only find the will and support to do the right thing after it's already too late.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 A4

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