As ice storm costs top $250 million, Ontario cities urge feds to increase disaster relief funding

A house on in Scarborough, Ont. is framed by downed trees and power lines, Monday, December 23, 2013, a day after …

A winter ice storm that swept across much of Ontario last month was so extreme and caused so much damage that it has left cities struggling to cover the cost of recovery, and calling for the country to change the way we react to increasingly-common extreme weather events.

The cost of recovering from extreme weather in Ontario last year has been pegged as high as $250 million, with Toronto alone claiming an estimated $106 million was spent on recovery and clean up efforts following the December ice storm.

"The scope and magnitude of this extreme winter storm was unprecedented," city officials wrote in a report released on Wednesday which requests the city call for changes to disaster recovery programs "that reflect the reality of climate change."

The ice storm hit southern Ontario on the evening of Dec. 21 and devastated the region with freezing rain, ice and wind through the following day. More than 300,000 people lost power, property was damaged by falling trees and thousands of people were left without access to their homes.

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Toronto's ice storm recovery cost has been pegged at $106 million – much higher than the original estimate of $75 million. On Thursday, Toronto Hydro announced the storm cost the agency $12.9 million - $1 million of which was from lost revenue.

The city report makes three recommendations going forward:

  • That Toronto request the provincial and federal governments provide financial assistance.
  • That it seek to be declared a "disaster area" in order to qualify for the Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program.
  • That the city request that higher levels of government establish new programs to address disaster recovery "that reflect the reality of climate change."

Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program funding would help cover the cost of responding and recovering from the disaster – such as paying staff overtime, renting equipment and running evacuation centres – as well as the cost of repairing infrastructure.

The program was previously used by Toronto following the 1998 ice storm. At that time, the city received $178 million in support. But according to the report, which will be debated at a special council session on Friday, current disaster recovery programs will no longer cut it.

"[I]t is recommended that the Provincial and Federal governments develop new programs for future disaster mitigation including urban flooding, winter storms and erosion control that reflect the reality of our changing climate," the report reads.

Perhaps there is something to this warning of a new reality. Climatologist Dave Phillips told the Toronto Star earlier this month the recent ice storm was the most devastating environmental assault of urban forestry in the past 170 years.

Ice storms have since caused even more trouble in Atlantic Canada, the total cost of which is still unclear. There were also storms in Manitoba, flooding in Quebec and tornadoes in Ontario.

Also this year, Alberta was hit by a catastrophic flood that prompted 32 municipalities to declare emergency and cost more than $1.7 billion to clean up – the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

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The Toronto area also suffered through its own flood this summer, tagged at a $65 million cost. Add that to the cost of the December ice storm and Toronto was hit with $171 million in disaster recovery bills in 2013.

Mississauga, meantime, faces a $25 million bill from ice storm recovery and neighbouring Brampton estimates that recovery efforts cost the city $51 million.

Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion has urged all municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area to collectively ask the province for disaster funding, rather than to go separately, hat in hand.

Notably, Mississauga has already passed a motion to request higher levels of government implement new recovery programs with more common extreme weather events in mind. Their request includes a call for the "rehabilitation of municipal infrastructure to mitigate future environmental and storm event impacts."

Said McCallion, "The mayors of the GTA need to work together and co-ordinate our response and ensure consistent messaging during these extreme weather events."

Toronto is expected to officially ask the province for disaster funding on Friday and will call for updates to the way we address extreme weather in Canada. Considering how common extreme weather events are becoming, the provincial and federal governments might have good reason to listen.

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