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Anatomy of One of Canada’s Worst—and Most Costly—Natural Disasters

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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People on a raft in Calgary

Calgarians rafting down what used to be a paved street. Photo credit: Wayne Stadler

Canadian officials taking stock of the deluge that occurred in mid-June in Alberta have started to characterize it as the worst flood in the province’s history. Some are even calling it Canada’s second-largest natural disaster, after the 1998 ice storm that hit Quebec and eastern Ontario. Analysts think that the cost of the flood, which claimed four lives and displaced over 100,000 Albertans from their homes, will top $3 billion dollars and could cost as much $5 billion. But numbers like these can be hard to grasp without a bit of context. And, in this case, context is all you need to understand why this disaster blows all recent Canadian inundations right out of the water.

Click here to enlarge.

If the cleanup does end up costing $3 billion, this year’s event will cost four times that of all flooding in the province between 1970 and 2009, according to data obtained from Public Safety Canada. In fact, the number is so high that the only way to find a comparable expense with other recent events is to sum the costs of all the flooding events that took place in the nearby province of Manitoba during the same period, which totaled about $1.4 billion, less than half the cost of the Alberta disaster.

Although a huge blow to Canada’s richest province in per capita income, the flood’s price tag is still much smaller than the cost of some of the biggest flooding worldwide during the past five years. The Mississippi flood of 2011 in the U.S., for example, topped out at an estimated $9 billion, and the Pakistani cataclysm of 2009 ended up with a price tag of about $10 billion. Right now, however, western Canadians aren’t exactly in the mood to compare notes. Many have already called on the Ottawa to send relief money, but it will take some time before federal dollars arrive. Since 2007 the national government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has taken an average of three years to provide relief aid to flood-devastated communities, according to data gathered from Public Safety Canada press releases. This means that Albertans might have to wait until 2016 or 2017 to receive money through the Canadian Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program.

The other issue has to do with how this flood could have occurred in the first place. According to Uldis Silins, a hydrologist at the University of Alberta who spoke with reporters at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.), the deluge might have caused fewer problems had there been less rainfall in the days leading up to it. The 40 millimeters of rain that fell at the beginning of June meant that the ground was unable to absorb the up to 200 millimeters that fell starting June 20. Others are blaming the slow mountain snowmelt for the ground’s saturation. But, like most storms, it was a combination of factors that made this one so overwhelming—factors like heavy rainfall, unusual wind patterns and high-pressure systems. These ingredients explain the storm’s devastation and why roads and fields turned into streams and lakes in an area spanning 400 kilometers over 25 communities, including the city of Calgary, the province’s economic capital.

As with most extreme weather events these days, many scientists and activists are pointing to climate change as a factor. David Suzuki, arguably Canada’s most famous living biologist, wrote in the Huffington Post Canada that although it isn’t quite acceptable for scientists to blame climate change for individual events like this one, “we can say we should expect more of the same—and worse if we don’t do something to get our emissions under control.” Whether global warming is to blame or not, the road to recovery is going to be a long one for the devastated communities, where Alberta Premier Alison Redford says the damage could take up to 10 years to repair.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross About the Author: Arielle is a Scientific American editorial intern. She covers a variety of topics including health, technology and zoology. Follow on Twitter @arielledross.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Scienceisnotagenda 9:51 am 07/17/2013

    I live in Calgary and this is way down on the list of natural disasters. It’s only up there on cost as the average home flooded is in the city was over the million dollar price tag.

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  2. 2. ErnestPayne 3:30 pm 07/17/2013

    Well free enterprise / we don’t need regulations Alberta got nailed. With all their petro wealth they should have no problem paying for the cleanup themselves.

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  3. 3. Scienceisnotagenda 4:28 pm 07/17/2013

    Ernest…true. Hardly a blip. Life back to normal in a couple days. Stampede. ( hardest hit area) went ahead without a hitch. Incredible infrastructure handing the crisis. As you state, free enterprise works great when not hampered by bureaucracy.

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  4. 4. gwmckenzie 6:36 pm 07/17/2013

    @Scienceisnotagenda – Huh? “Hardly a blip.”? Where exactly in Calgary does this rosy view come from? Tell it to the folks in High River, or Canmore. Or Bowness, Sunnyside, Mission, Erlton or a dozen other communities. Almost 10% of the city was evacuated (100% of High River) and those people don’t all live in million dollar homes. A lot of renters in basement suites have lost everything. And you appear to have lost your heart. As for ErnstPayne – if you really think we should be “on our own”, send our taxes for the last 2 decades back – happy to keep the “petro wealth” where it won’t sully your sensibilities.

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  5. 5. kebil 6:45 pm 07/17/2013

    I don’t know what they are talking about when they refer to Manitoba in the graph. Most of the major floods in Manitoba don’t affect a single town (they mention Melita), but the entire Red River Valley. The flood of 1997 created one of the largest lakes in North America. The damage in Manitoba was about 300 million to 1.23 billion, depending on how damages are calculated. The total damage in ’97 was about 3.5 billion (the greatest part occurring in Grand Forks and elsewhere in North Dakota). The Winnipeg flood of 1993 was 618 million. Wikipedia lists the damage of the 1950 flood at 4.65 billion, and the flood of ’55 at 362 million. It was the ’50s floods that lead to the construction of the Winnipeg floodway, a project that moved more dirt than that of the Panama canal project, and this is the reason the flood of ’97, which was the “flood of the century” did not flood all of Winnipeg.

    I am not trying to compare that flood to the Calgary flood, they are both very different, and I don’t doubt the Calgary flood may have caused more damage. And a disaster is a disaster, for those affected, their flood is the worst ever. I have an aunt and 2 cousins who live in High River. My aunts house was spared, but one of my cousin’s still has 6 feet of water in her basement, and her house will surely be condemned (so far, 3 weeks in water, the walls are now covered in black mold). My problem is with the chart, and it’s referral to the flood of ’99, which most people don’t even remember around here.

    By the way, the 2011 Manitoba flood may well have caused more damage than the 1997 flood.

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  6. 6. Scienceisnotagenda 8:04 pm 07/17/2013

    Gwmmckenzie: The Calgary flood is a blip. 10% of the city evacuated…for a day. A few dozen structures after a week. I live in Mission…a couple of access points closed…95 % of this district open.

    Hint: High River and Canmore are not Calgary.

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  7. 7. bongobimbo 6:01 pm 07/18/2013

    It’s a shame so many Canadians, whom I used to respect, have gone mad over greed. Welcome to the jungle.

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  8. 8. Resolute 7:06 pm 07/20/2013

    @ErnestPayne – Given how much more money we send to the rest of Canada than we get back, the simple truth is, we will be funding the recovery ourselves. Any dollar the feds pay out is a dollar that came from Alberta in the first place.

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