The cost of extreme weather

UW initiative aims to train every home inspector to identify risk, educate homeowners

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When the waters of the Grand River spilled their banks last June, suddenly and with little warning, it was a withering reminder of the immense costs and particular vulnerabilities of local communities to flooding. Occurring once every few decades, such events can be manageable. But as climate change brings more extreme weather events, climate adaption is key, says an expert at the University of Waterloo.

The costs to homeowners and communities due to floods can be staggering. But faculty of environment professor Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaption, is coordinating a national effort that will harden Canadians against the rising flood waters.

“This is very, very important because the average cost of a flooded basement in [Canada] right now is about $43,000,” explained Feltmate. “But through a little bit of preemptive work that can be done on a Saturday and maybe a Sunday morning for almost nothing, a couple hundred dollars usually and no special skills, this can be the difference between a flooded basement and not a flooded basement.

“A little bit of sweat equity and it may be the difference between having a $40- or $50,000 or more basement flood versus not,” he added.

It’s a comparatively small effort to undertake, but for most people, an expert’s guidance is not readily available.

To that end, the Intact Centre aims to have every home inspector in the country trained to provide owners flood-risk assessments, which will allow anyone to know the risks as well as how to protect their homes.

“Ninety per cent of the time if people buy a home, they have a home inspection,” explained Feltmate. “Right now, home inspectors in Canada receive virtually zero training on basement flood risk assessment, believe it or not, which is the biggest risk to you,” he explained.

When you purchase a home, an inspector can point out electrical hazards, bad plumbing or mold problems. Most though cannot tell you just how likely your home is going to flood based on local floodplain mapping, window sealing and driveway gradients. Fewer still would likely be able to tell you what would need to be done to get the house up to standard.

The new training program the UW centre has helped create will be compulsory for home inspectors, says Feltmate, and will allow them in turn to give people an educated guide on the risk that a home or bit of property will flood, as well as the steps they can take to mitigate those risks.

Blair Feltmate

“We’re now working with the colleges in Ontario and effectively the rest of Canada … to create a new course that will roll out in Ontario in September of this year, and then be nationally available in January of 2019,” said Feltmate.

More than that, the Intact Centre is working to create new standards for home and community construction with the Canadian Standards Association, which directs safety certification in Canada and abroad on everything from football helmets to plumbing systems, for flood-resistant construction.

Designing new communities to be flood-resistant, and providing flood assessments for homeowners, has become all the more crucial as extreme weather phenomena becomes the norm, says Feltmate.

“A growing problem in Canada from Halifax to Victoria is the growing uninsurability of the housing market in the country,” he said. “Where insurers find themselves in situations now where flood risk is so high, with such repetition, that they simply can’t offer insurance coverage in many regions for water flooding in the basement.”

It’s a trend that’s borne out in the numbers. According to statistics compiled by Intact, the losses to insurance companies has sky-rocketed over the past 35 years in Canada, even when we take inflation into account. Just looking at insurance payouts for large-scale damages – such as those that would be paid out for floods, fires and other extreme events – costs in Canada have doubled every five to ten years since 1980.

Even in past seven years alone, the cost of freak weather events have dramatically shot up. Between 1983 to 2008, insurance payouts for those large-scale disasters cost on average $400 million a year (in 2016 dollars). Between 2009 and 2016, the payouts exceeded $1 billion. In 2013, over $2 billion was paid out in damages, the majority due to floods, while a further $4 billion dollars worth of damage was left uninsured.

Put another way, extreme weather, and flooding in particular, is becoming more frequent in Canada, causing more damage and costing Canadians more and more dollars to repair. And, Feltmate adds, when we consider that, according to the Canadian Payroll Association, half of all Canadians live paycheque to paycheque, the stress of increased flooding can become fast untenable.

But with the right planning, these costs can at the very least be diminished if not avoided outright. There are about 40,000 home inspectors in Canada, and 9,000 in the province, that Feltmate expects can benefit from the new program over the next few years. The Intact Centre is also working on a smaller, more concise version of the course for mortgage brokers, banks, real estate agents, and other professionals that would benefit from the basic training.