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An ounce of flood prevention worth an ocean of cure

Former soldier Shane  Schreiber with Premier Greg Selinger in May 2011.


Former soldier Shane Schreiber with Premier Greg Selinger in May 2011.

The officer in charge of the military response to the 2011 Manitoba flood says this province showed "moral courage" by making difficult decisions to sacrifice rural properties in an effort to save larger population centres.

Shane Schreiber, the former commander of the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, said Manitoba should be commended for going ahead with the Hoop and Holler cut and the prolonged use of the Portage Diversion during the 2011 flood.

The pair of moves provided protection for Portage la Prairie, Winnipeg and other urban centres while it flooded rural and lakefront properties.

"Inevitably, in a disaster, somebody gets hurt," Schreiber said Wednesday in Winnipeg, where he delivered a presentation to a provincial disaster-management conference. "This is where the moral courage comes in."

Schreiber, who has retired from the military and is now chief of staff of Alberta's flood-recovery task force, said the main goal in disasters is to minimize damage.

Tough choices made in Manitoba in 2011 fulfilled that objective -- even as those choices devastated homes and cottages along Lake Manitoba, where water levels rose as a result of the prolonged use of the Portage Diversion and damaged rural properties in the vicinity of the Hoop and Holler Bend, where the province deliberately breached an Assiniboine River dike.

In a comparison of the 2011 Assiniboine River flood to the 2013 Rocky Mountain foothills floods, Schreiber said Alberta was forced to learn lessons the hard way.

The widespread awareness of the potential for deluges in Manitoba led this province to spend millions on flood-protection efforts, while Alberta chose not to spend mitigation money.

"We had an acceptance of risk and that was a bad bet," said Schreiber, referring to the catastrophic damage in High River and Calgary during last summer's flood. "In many cases, we made myopic decisions based on short-term financial considerations."

Alberta must be more careful about allowing development in flood plains, beef up emergency-response plans and mitigate against future floods, he said.

"In Alberta, in the past, people decided not to mitigate because they said, 'Well, that risk is not as likely, so we're just going to take our chances,' " he said. "As you have climate change, you're going to have to invest in more mitigation or accept that you're going to have to pay a lot more in recovery."

Ottawa has recently signalled it's more interested in disaster prevention than picking up recovery costs. Federal payouts for disaster assistance have skyrocketed in recent years.

While such a shift would mean more federal flood-prevention funding, it would also reduce federal disaster assistance after the fact, Schreiber said.

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