illustration: Sam Brewster

Flooding in Alberta: Why You Need to Be Prepared

By Carly Peters

The majestic Rocky Mountains and a multitude of winding rivers comprise a large part of Alberta’s beauty. But these natural features also put residents at risk as winter changes to spring. Few will ever forget the 2013 Alberta flood—not only because it was, at the time, the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history, but also due to the devastating effect it had on the people, homes and businesses it left in its wake.

Of course, flooding is nothing new to the province. According to Jason Penner of Alberta Environment and Parks, records indicate that in 1879, 1897 and 1902, the Bow River near Calgary overflowed its banks to a similar extent as the 2013 disaster.

“Prevailing weather patterns and the presence of the Rocky Mountains mean that many of Alberta’s rivers are susceptible to extreme flows following major rainfall events on the eastern slopes,” he says. “Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton may seem fairly spread out, but the rivers that flow through them all have their headwaters within a 300-kilometre stretch of the mountains.”

Penner also points to parts of the province that experience drainage challenges due to the nature of prairie topography. And ice jams increase the risk in northern communities, such as the 2020 flooding of the Athabasca River in Fort McMurray, which displaced close to 13,000 people from their homes.

So it’s a fact of life: Floods can occur regularly in Alberta. But why does their severity seem to have intensified?

“What’s different now is that we have neighbourhoods and infrastructure in harm’s way. When flooding does occur, it’s much more damaging and costly,” explains Tim Haney, director of Mount Royal University’s Centre for Community Disaster Research. “Although we are experiencing more climate volatility, the key driver of increasing flood losses is almost certainly the development of flood-prone areas adjacent to our rivers.”

Alberta is making progress on becoming more flood-resilient by investing in flood mapping, new infrastructure and watershed health. The province has also committed to investing in emergency alert technology to more quickly notify residents of impending disasters. Alberta was the first province in Canada to have an alert system—a result of the 1987 Edmonton tornado—which today includes a notification app and, most recently, wireless public alerting, which sends public safety messages directly to smartphones in affected regions.

The Alberta Emergency Management Agency has also introduced the Alberta Rivers mobile app and web app to provide detailed information on current and expected river conditions.

Ensuring you have the emergency alert and Alberta Rivers apps is just one way to help protect yourself and your home in the event of a flood.

Any good disaster-preparation plan includes a 72-hour kit. “The idea behind it is to make sure you’re able to shelter-in-place for 72 hours, so that first responders can focus on those whose lives are in danger,” says Haney. Your kit should include water, necessary medications, clothing, food, one or more flashlights, chargers for electronic communication devices, and insurance documents. For more suggestions, visit this website.

After you’ve taken care of your in-case-of-emergency preparations, consider steps you can take around your home to prevent or mitigate flood-related losses:

• Move valuables off the floor of your basement and store them in plastic, water-resistant containers (or do not store them in the basement at all).

• Use mould-resistant drywall and other construction materials in basements or other flood-prone areas.

• Move your furnace, water heater and/or electrical panel to elevated locations in your basement, if possible.

• Clear your eavestroughs and downspouts, and make sure they drain away from your house.

• Have a licensed plumber install a backwater valve in your main sewer line, which will prevent sewage from backing up into your home.

• Install a drainage system including a sump pump, as well as a discharge pipe that drains away from your house, preferably onto a grassy or non-paved area.

• Invest in a battery-operated backup sump pump, which can take over should your primary pump become disabled because of a power outage, mechanical failure or clogging.

It’s also particularly important to understand your water-related insurance coverage.

“Water damage is the single biggest cause of home claims in Canada today,” says Ted Koleff, vice-president of claims at AMA Insurance. “It’s bigger than theft, bigger than fire. Knowing what you’re covered for and how to prevent water damage claims will make you and your family safer, more secure and more comfortable. And it can help control your insurance premiums.”

The word “flood” is often used generically to describe many different water-related problems. But ambiguity is something you do not want in a home insurance policy. So AMA Insurance offers an Enhanced Water Endorsement to all policyholders: add-on coverage that insures you for the sum of all direct damage resulting from sewer backup, overland water and surface water on your premises, up to the amount shown on your policy.

10 important things to know about home insurance

There are some factors, however, which may limit water coverage—like if your dwelling is in a known flood zone or river valley. And some types of damage are excluded, such as water damage sustained while your home is vacant or under construction, or damage to things like foundations, driveways, sidewalks, ornamental ponds or perimeter drainage systems.

“Your AMA Insurance advisor will help you understand when and why your coverage has changed or may be limited,” Koleff says.

Beyond all that, Mount Royal University’s Haney states that the simplest strategy is to know your neighbours.

“Social infrastructure—like strong community networks, and overall civic engagement—can help ensure residents’ needs are met during an evacuation, and can help them return home, rebuild and heal from the trauma,” he says. “In an increasingly volatile climate, no amount of berms, dikes or levees will allow us to conquer nature and prevent all flood events. But we can build more resilient communities that are better able to bounce back after a disaster.”

flooding in alberta paper restorationSAVE MEMORIES
Few things can be considered safe from damage during a severe flood. That’s especially true for papers like legal files, medical records, and even old journals and family photos: ink breaks down; pages stick together; mould and mildew begin to take hold.

Fear not: Waterlogged documents can be salvaged. First, triage your papers and identify what you want saved. If you can, remove these items to a cool, dry environment—preferably with a dehumidifier running—and lay them out on absorbent towels. Then contact a professional document restorer.

A pro may recommend freezing the docs to stop mould growth until they can be assessed. But follow their instructions carefully, as home freezers are not always suitable for the task. From there, restorers use a number of tools to recover papers, including desiccant and vacuum-freeze drying, molecular sieves and potentially even gamma radiation to sterilize mould-infected documents. The process can be costly, but saving vital information and memories? That’s priceless.

Talk to an AMA Insurance advisor to find out if your home is covered for water-related problems