Wildrose MLA Wayne Anderson, the DRP Advocacy Committee, and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark have all been upset about the supposed progress the DRP has been making.
I don’t believe they’ve been upset enough. I am so disappointed in this government operation that I am now calling for the resignation of the Director of the AEMA Shane Schreiber, and am joining the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association in calling for an independent review of the Disaster Recovery Program.
Minister of Municipal Affairs has shown how out-of-touch he is with the program in his latest statement to the press. It is obvious he is being fed manipulated information from the AEMA Director, and has no clue what actual progress on the DRP files actually looks like.
Allow me to review how I came to this conclusion.
I have kept a log of the various updates to DRP statuses, particularly for High River. Here are some strange anomalies I have found:
In early June, Mr. Anderson reported that the promise former Premier Jim Prentice made to close all DRP files by that time only referred to residential files. Even so, the number of open residential files have steadily increased since that promise was made, and even well into the NDP era.
Between mid-April and early-June, one High River Small Business file was lost. It was recovered between early-June and late-July along with another Small Business file and new residential High River files. This can be the only explanation for the discrepancy in the statistical reports, as the deadline to submit an application was way back in November of 2013.
That wasn’t the only time that happened. In fact, between mid-August and early-September, 4 more residential DRP files (including tenants) seem to have been found. This makes the total “found” files since Prentice’s promise to close all files by the summer add up to 11. Where have these files been since the deadline 22 months ago?
These are just the examples of mismanagement. Now I get to the anomalies that show misinformation.
Up to mid-April, an application may have been considered fully-funded, and therefore in progress, but it was not considered “open”. Yet every month following, fully-funded files were considered “open”. I have to wonder if this was done so that the DRP office could report, during an election, that only 6% of High River files remained open, even though a month after the election that number would suddenly jump to 16% after the NDP took office.
Stranger still is Minister Bilous’s explanation of what “fully-funded” actually means. He suggests that designation means a claimant has received all the money they are going to get. To be clear, I don’t believe this is his own personal definition, but rather a definition that has been handed to him. One has to wonder what the “paid” designation means, if not that the claimant has received all the money they are going to get.
In mid-August, across Alberta there were 1327 files still open, yet at the beginning of September suddenly 59 more files were categorized as “open”. 4 of those files had to have just been “found”, but where did the others come from? There have been 16 files that have been magically un-”withdrawn” over the summer, maybe they finally found their way into the “open” column? Even so, some files that were once “closed” suddenly were not anymore.
950 of those open files were fully-funded in mid-August. At the beginning of September, that number decreased by 83 files, despite having more open files. Where did those files go? Apparently into the “Administrative Processing” column, which according to Bilous’s latest statement indicates that they have cheques waiting to be processed. But I thought “fully-funded” meant they’ve already received all the money they’re going to get!
If you have observed the number of Small Business DRP applications in High River over the past 9 months, the number of “open” files have swung wildly, from 106 down to 62 back up to 100 and eventually down to the 82 at the latest report. According to members of the DRP Advocacy Committee, that number may drop drastically the next time we see it, as small businesses were given a 45-day timeline to respond (I don’t know what they are supposed to respond to) or their files would be permanently closed. That deadline has passed.
On July 24, the DRP Advocacy Committee indicated that there were 160 cheques that had been approved yet not delivered. Since then, the number of “paid” files has increased only by 18. Are we to therefore assume that there remains 142 cheques floating somewhere in Canada Post-land? Or that 160 cheques were only for 18 people, meaning each person received 8 or 9 cheques? Or perhaps, as Bilous suggests, the “Administrative Processing” column is for those cheques that need to be sent out, as he told the media exactly 103 cheques are ready for mailing. But if that were true, wouldn’t the statistics in July have had 160 in that column?
Between mid-August and early-September, 80 fewer closed residential files across Alberta were considered “paid”. Somehow, people whose files were closed and had been paid out in mid-August suddenly had not received money at the beginning of September. Unless Alberta has 80 Benjamin Buttons, I don’t understand how that’s possible, unless the definition of “paid” has changed.
Webster would have a field day with these problems. The word “defined” means “precise, fixed, or exact”. None of the definitions offered for the terms “open”, “closed”, “fully-funded” or “paid” have been precise or fixed.
“Open” doesn’t really mean requiring closure. Based on how DRP has been run, even a closed file can be open again without entering an appeals process. Interesting to note, while the PCs were in power, the number of “open” files got smaller more quickly. Once the NDP came to power, the number of “open” files suddenly spiked, and the only way to close them is to force the issue, such as with the small business deadline mentioned.
“Paid” doesn’t really mean applicants have received money. It means a cheque has been authorized. It hasn’t necessarily been printed, and certainly doesn’t mean it’s been delivered. I think.
I don’t believe the definition of the term “fully-funded” Mr. Bilous offered, although I suspect the definition was fed to him. None of the statistics up to this point verify his proferred definition. “Fully-Funded” is a particularly confusing term, because what it suggests to me is that those that are not fully-funded have no funding available for them, even though DRP currently has a surplus. Based off information I've received from the DRP Advocacy Committee, this is not far from true. Claimants submit their receipts, and hopefully 100% of those receipts get funded; or claimants who can't afford to pay up front submit quotes for work to be done, and hopefully 90% of these quotes get funded (matching Prentice's January Promise). Those that are in “Administrative Processing” therefore must be files that are open and for whom DRP must lobby government to fund. Those that are in “Eligibility Review” must be those that are being reviewed as to whether or not they are worth lobbying for. Those that have “Action Required” must be those that are waiting to enter into either category. I hope I’m wrong about these, but one thing is for certain; “fully-funded” cannot simply mean claimants in that category have received all they’re going to get.
There is also another designation that hasn't made it to the statistics reports, and that is the term "Complete". At one point in time "Complete" meant everything that could be done with a file was done, the only thing missing was the issuance of a closure letter. Why have this designation if not to delay sending closure letters so as to delay potential appeals?
But that's not even the best part; the term "Complete" has also changed as well, the biggest change surrounding then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes. At one point in time we thought he'd be running for the PC Leadership, and his announcement that all DRP files would be 90% "Complete" by March 31, 2014. When he realized that wasn't possible, he changed what the word meant; "Complete" now meant that DRP had sent out cheques for 90% of receipts received. Suddenly lots of small cheques backlog the system, and claimants get confused when they are told their file is "Complete" yet they haven't handed in all their receipts yet.
This is similar to the current issue around the term "Fully-Funded", it is a term that confuses claimants into thinking they've got all the money they're going to get, so why bother continuing on?
All of this results in the steady, albeit slow, increase in the number of “closed” files (to the tune of two or three files each week). At least that is true in High River, where the DRP Advocacy Committee continues to raise a stink. If you live anywhere else, your number of “closed” files are actually decreasing.
Meanwhile 2014 DRP files (for the floods that happened in southwestern Alberta) have been delayed by the 2013 backlog, and Calgary has been denied DRP funds to deal with “Snowtember”, yet DRP money is not being completely spent. I can only conclude one rationale for all these things.
Someone is trying to save their own skin.
If the 2013 DRP files appear to be closing, and the program manages to turn a surplus, your boss, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, is likely to let you to do your work. He might even give you some leniency for your high rate of staff turnover, the apparently complicated files being closed slowly, and the fact that almost 20% of files go to appeals (much higher than the 10% norm).
Frankly, I might be willing to do the same. Until I see how I’ve been manipulated.
And make no mistake, Mr. Bilous has been manipulated. I would bet certain staff are counting on the fact that Mr. Bilous may not fully understand the definitions of each category of claim, which is why those definitions keep shifting. He may agree with a staff member who says “snow is not an abnormal event in Alberta”, despite “Snowtember 2014” being the heaviest snowfall any September has ever seen in the past 130 years. But the fact is definitions are being manipulated, facts are being blurred, and staff members are keeping their jobs by doing it.
And through it all, somehow one extremely important fact has been lost in the reporting of statistics. At the end of each statistic is a human being.
A human being who has watched their file move from open to fully-funded to administrative processing to fully-funded to closed and paid back to open again to closed and finally to appeals. For over 2 full years.
I personally have lost patience, and I don’t even have a DRP claim. The Disaster Recovery Program is a Disaster in need of Recovery.
The lowest common denominator is not the government; it has changed and DRP has not improved. The lowest common denominator is not the advocates; they too have changed not only their personnel but their approach. It's also not the front-lines staff trying to process the claims, as even the Municipal Affairs Report to Legislature said that staff has had a high rate of turnover. The lowest common denominator is the staff leading the program. Only they could lose files, redefine categories, and manipulate data to make it look like work was getting done when in fact it hasn’t. The goal of a good DRP manager should be to work themselves out of a job. It seems managerial staff in this case are preventing their jobs from being lost, and they’ve managed to do so across a government change through confoundery.
Mr. Bilous must recognize that he has been played, and ask the AEMA Director Shane Schreiber to step aside. Even he named Mr. Schreiber as the individual who has been the main communicator, so therefore the main manipulator of facts.
91% of Alberta Urban Municipalities don't trust DRP. This is why they have called for an independent review. An independent review will allow the rest of the staff to continue working on open files (preferably in a case-management format), and not interrupt their work too much. But more importantly, it will clarify what exactly is going on in those offices, where data has been manipulated, and what must improve so that those who suffer disasters in the future do not have to contend with a governmental disaster as well.
Thanks to the DRP Advocacy Committee, Mr. Clark, and most recently Mr. Anderson and their colleagues for never giving up. While we hope every Albertan never needs to use the Disaster Recovery Program, we must feel as though we can count on it if we do need it.
Alberta Urban Municipalities can't. Neither can I.
Mr. Bilous, fix the DRP.
But let's be honest, it's been in need of a defibrillator for quite some time now.
A week and a half ago, I went to a meeting that discussed the downtown High River of old, the opportunities that the flood presented, and the vision for its future. Most of the attendees were either downtown business folk, people who have been advising such as myself, or area planners and politicians. The conversation was frank.
First in the presentation, a slide that showed High River's downtown from decades passed. Even then it looked more alive than it has ever looked in my near-decade of living here.
Then a photo of 4th Avenue, which looked, as our mayor put it, like a truck lot. Angle parking all the way down the one-way street. Storefronts were not visible, nor were shoppers. Sidewalks were narrow enough that the event-planners rule of being able to accommodate two wheelchairs was barely accommodated, if it was at all.
This is what made downtown High River dead. People came into town, parked in front of the store they wanted to visit, walked in, walked out, and drove away. People were not encouraged to walk around downtown much unless they were a visitor coming to check out the murals, which are in desperate need of some resuscitation as well.
This is not what makes a community. Communities in the physical sense of the word are areas where people gather and commune, sharing the same space for similar reasons. In the case of downtown, those reasons should be to operate a business, to participate in events and functions, and to have a place to gather and socialize. In High River, that last point is missing not just in downtown, but in the entire community. It is for this reason that downtown High River is dying.
Drive through it now, and you'll see that it's dead. A select few businesses remain open. Frankly, the 50's style restaurant is likely doing relatively decent business right now because it is located within a stone's throw of the Disaster Recovery office.
Landlords and owners are wondering why they should feel any pressure to rebuild it right now? It didn't have a significantly large economic function before, it certainly wasn't the town's economic engine (mind you, if it was, then that is a pretty significant indicator that a reboot is required).
Well at that meeting I found out why. The current town council is applying a significant jolt of energy to get the heart of High River beating again.
The images and descriptions that followed, honestly, scared me. They discussed Phase 1, which included adjustments to Macleod Trail, 3rd and 4th Avenues. Parking in these areas will be reduced to a fraction of what existed before the flood and exists right now. Instead, sidewalks will be widened significantly, any parking that does exist will be parallel, and storefronts will be visible. Even the roadways will not be paved as they had been before, but will rather have a "walking path" feel to it. 4th Avenue will easily be converted from a road with just enough space for cars to drive through in both directions into a place for any form of community fair, such as the popular Show 'n' Shine. I was reminded of Stephen Avenue Mall in Calgary, but with a much more small-town atmosphere. This is a complete and total change from what High River looks like now. The magnitude of the change itself is scary.
But after thinking about it for a bit, I found myself being won over by the concept. Imagine a space in High River already built for outdoor community events that will help drive the economy because it is amongst the small businesses in town. Imagine that the businesses create their own small events because they have the latitude and real estate to do so both inside their building and on the street in front of it. Imagine a "High River Experience" bringing people off of Highway 2, and not just McDonald's or Tim Horton's.
I am not going to give away all the details. Honestly, townspeople should come out to the public information sessions and open houses to discuss it with the people planning it. However, there are a couple of things we should be careful of when it comes to this drastic change.
My first concern; we do not live in the Field of Dreams. Just because you build it doesn't mean people will come. There has to be a reason for people to visit. I'd like to say the "Mom and Pop Shops" will be the reason, but the truth is that it won't be. This is why, at the meeting, I shouldered up to the town's mayor, gestured at the artist's conception of the future 4th Avenue, and said "I see an Arts Facility complete with theatre, public art gallery and classrooms going right there!" (To my great delight, he said "I agree") People need to have a reason to come to downtown to check it out. If the design is done properly and the businesses are truly as on board as they suggest, then those things combined will keep people wanting to come back.
My second concern; public buy-in, especially when they realize they're going to have to walk a block or two to get to their favourite local shop. High River has lived in a state of under-exertion for a couple of decades at least, now. Thankfully, I share the mayor's viewpoint on this. When asked at the meeting about handicapped individuals, that concern was addressed and evidence that they had been considered and accommodated was in the presentation. When asked at the meeting about people who don't want to have to walk very far in the dead cold of February to get to a store they need to visit, mayor Craig Snodgrass made a comment that vaulted him near the top of my list of favoured politicians: "thicker coats and liquor". This tongue-in-cheek comment did not tell me that he would endorse more bars to move into downtown; it told me that High Riverites will no longer have the option of being idle. I don't think that this will be as difficult of a sell these days as it would have been a year ago, but there will be some people not pleased with this idea.
My final concern; parking. The one untied loose end discussed at the meeting was parking. Considering they are planning on reducing downtown's parking by a minimum of 50 spaces, this is a considerable loose end. Thankfully they are hoping to come upon some arrangement with the real estate historically owned by Canadian Pacific Railways. I'll buy into this arrangement, but really hope this loose end is tied up quickly.
So High River's downtown is dead. The Town Council is giving it a much needed jolt to get its heart beating again. We as High Riverites must encourage them not only to give it the jolt it needs, but to keep working to help it live, thrive, and grow. Council needs to deal with the issues of the Field of Dreams, public buy-in, and parking. Let's push Council to deal with these issues, and give them the high five they deserve for figuring out how to get the heart beating again.
Recently, Minister of Municipal Affairs Ken Hughes announced that, despite former estimates, only 90% of DRP files would be closed at the end of March, 2014. Then he took another step back and said "no wait, not until the end of June, now", which basically means a full year of homelessness for those affected. Not that I'm surprised, he inherited a mess from his predecessor, Doug Griffiths.
However, in order to meet those targets, people who were already told they are going to be covered through the DRP are now being told "nevermind, no money for you."
The best example of this is the first completed DRP file in High River. That file refers to the basement of Richard Murray. On September 23, 2013 he was given approval to go forward with rebuilding his basement in writing. Throughout the next two months, he rebuilt, had inspected, adjusted, continued rebuilding, inspected, and completed his basement all with great collaboration with the DRP office. On November 23, 2013, all paperwork for his claim was considered complete, and he was given every indication that he would be given his funds. He followed all the rules, and worked very closely and collegially with the decision-makers.
On March 11, 2014, Murray got a brief phone call saying that his DRP claim was denied in full. When he asked why, the response was "we have no details for you."
The result is that he will no longer be an Albertan. He will be moving to British Columbia. What's even more telling about this is that he has dedicated decades of his volunteer service to High River, even running for the public service of Town Councillor in the last election. In the end, the Disaster Recovery Program has run this incredibly dedicated community advocate out of town.
Why on Earth, or in Alberta, would the DRP process choose to rip this man's spleen out through his throat like that?
DRP has been changed multiple times since the first files were created. Any file completed before the latest iteration of the DRP process will be referred to a "special review" process. To me, this smacks of duplication; files that were already well-handled are being held back to be looked over one more, two more, seven more times.
If DRP was broken the first time, all those first files will be wrong too, right?
That's not what was broken. The first files completed were the ones done well. Reviewing them added a significantly unnecessary bureaucratic layer. What was broken was the multitude of files that did not get addressed, did not have deadlines met from the government side, and did not get money in a timely fashion to the residents who desperately needed.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it is broke, don't fix the pieces that work.
Hughes stepped back from his commitment to complete the DRP process to only complete 90%. Apparently, even that target is so hard to hit, that files that were stuck in the "special review" process were simply too much to handle.
So they called Richard Murray to say "no money for you", with no further details. The only logical conclusion is that they've done so because those details are "we just don't want to handle your file anymore." It's the only way they'll hit that target.
And considering the political turbidity surrounding the PC Party of Alberta right now, they can't afford to miss another target.
How many other High Riverites are going to get the exact same phone call? All the ones who did get their files started early theoretically have been living in relief. Those who did not are the ones who are most in needed of mental health support. Now that the ones who got their files started early are being told they are under "special review", the DRP program is now forcing even those early-starters into mental health disarray.
Just to meet a target, to save a party, to retain power.
If people can't rebuild their basements, homes and businesses, they can't move back. Therefore, they won't shop in High River. They won't open up shop in High River. They won't work in High River. They won't break bread with each other in High River. They won't play in High River. They certainly will have no vested interest in protecting it and rebuilding it for the future.
With this new revelation, I can confidently say High River is dying. And right now, the easiest and most valid scapegoat is the one thing preventing residents, workers, business owners, and community builders from moving back into town.
The Disaster Recovery Program.
So my call to Ken Hughes is to completely shift his position on the completion of the DRP. Not renewing a contract with LandLink is a good decision, but letting them keep the files they've already got is not going to solve the issue of their involvement. The current position is forcing active files to be rammed through, and if necessary cancelled, with little to no consideration for the people and communities they directly affect.
I am asking that Hughes commit to fully fund every Disaster Recovery Program claim as property owners have been promised. I am asking him to completely remove LandLink from the process with no exceptions. I am asking his office take over any remaining outstanding files where no statement of coverage has been offered to the property owner. I am also asking him to add the consideration of these two questions in the completion of those outstanding files;
Lastly, I’m asking that he resist every urge to shift a deadline or target date again. Flood victims need something stable to work with, and the regular shifting of deadlines and target dates leaves them with complete instability.
Or else I fear for the future of my town.
Good news does abound, and while it took a long time, Richard Murray now has received his DRP payments. However, he has some sage advice for all those who have dealt with DRP, and the advice does not end once you've received your cheque. I recommend reading the article here, as it can not be said better than by the man himself.
I only know I'm a good man because my wife is incredible. Nobody as amazing as her would stick around with a guy like me unless she thought I was worth it. Therefore, I'm worth it.
Which leads me to introduce you to a wonderful lady who will be more in the spotlight in High River than ever before. While my amazing wife was giving birth to our second child (who is now 3 and a half years old), there was one nurse there who was the most incredible support for her throughout the labour. I was extremely humbled, as a father during childbirth should be. My wife took the process like a typical farm girl with all her strength, resolve, and work ethic. Very much "just get it done". And the nurse had such compassion and fed my wife such strength, it was as if she were family, encouraging her all the way. Both women made me realize how little a good man could possibly be without a good woman beside him.
That nurse's name is Lindsay Snodgrass. Wife to High River's new mayor, Craig Snodgrass.
That's how I know our town is going to be okay. Because behind every good man is the support of someone just as amazing (or in my case, someone even better).
Many people know I did not support Craig for Mayor. I was extremely concerned about someone with little experience taking the reigns of our town. Honestly, I'm still concerned about that, but I'm putting those concerns aside, because those concerns are for elections. The concerns we must deal with now are how a new council is going to help us recover and rebuild.
I know that Craig could be great for our town, if given the right support. And if it's one thing I've learned about High Riverites, they are strong and resolute, and can be the best support an individual can hope for. However, you certainly don't want to cross High Riverites, either.
Lindsay is a great woman, and with her I'm confident that Craig is a great guy. However, Craig needs to be a great Mayor. So he needs a great town council, town organizations, and townspeople to stand with him.
Town Council will have to shift from campaigning in opposition to campaigning as a unit. It will take work, but they can do it.
I'm so pleased to have a colleague of mine, Bruce Masterman on council. I'm confident that his passion for High River will mean that not one individual gets left behind. He is a genuinely kind and caring man, and has an amazing "big picture" view. I truly hope he brings the balance to council that it will need right now.
I was very impressed with Cathy Couey's platform, in the fact that she had one. Not only that, her platform had multiple issues covered. I know she's put some thought into a vision for the town. She will carry it forward without a doubt, but as we were able to find with previous councillor Betty Hiebert, a lone woman on the council has challenges ahead. There was no shortage of good, strong female candidates, yet only Couey got in. She's going to have to be even stronger, more informed, and ready to speak the language of the common person to truly help council out.
I honestly know very little about Peter Loran, except for the casual conversations I've had with him during the campaign. I'm truly hopeful that his personality matches his abilities as councillor, because if that is the case, he might just be the peacemaker. More importantly, however, is that the new council's first job will be to deal with the new budget, and this is where we need Loran most. Loran's experience in banking and investments will be crucial, but must be backed up with vision. I didn't hear much about his vision for High River, so if he is lacking in that department, let's hope he can put his investment experience into play using others' vision.
Dragan Brankovich has an eye for engineering, but he's going to need to bring more to the table than just his ability to "speak engineering". If he keeps his eyes on the flood, I'm afraid that little else will move forward. He has shown that he might actually have a vision for things like the arts, culture, heritage, and recreation, but it is vague at best. I'm concerned he will get tunnel vision and ignore the long-term needs of the community. Perhaps time will prove me wrong; it would be wonderful to be wrong in this case.
Don Moore has been a very pleasant man for me to work with, and I have enjoyed my interactions with him. He has always had a vision for the community, and that vision has always progressed and changed along with it. He is meticulous in his work, and council could use that attention to detail and experience. My only concern for him is how he will work with this new team. It is my hope that he is ready to be part of a collaborative effort to get this town moving forward, and I'm sure he'll do it.
There is an advantage, and yet a danger, to having Emile Blokland on council. The advantage is that all those promises the Province of Alberta gave the town will still be in the memory of the council. Snodgrass will have Blokland in his court to remind the Province what they promised, and so the whole council will be able to make good on their campaign promise to "hold their feet to the fire." However, having the old mayor in one of the policy-makers chairs might be enough to pause growth in our town. Potential business owners might see it as being regressive, not progressive. I would hope that's not the case, but only Blokland's actions will prove to them otherwise.
If Snodgrass is going to be a successful mayor, he needs the support of every person on council. This does not mean that every idea he presents needs to be accepted unilaterally. Rather, it means that council must work together, something that was lacking a bit last time around.
Every councillor must voice their ideas, and no idea should be ignored. Each idea must be considered on its own merits. Each councillor must work with the best points of each idea to achieve consensus. With consensus, we will truly see a council working together. Snodgrass, who will be our town's main salesperson, will be the face of that unified council, and the town, province, and country will see it.
If at any time a member of council feels as though their ideas were ignored or ridiculed, the unity of council will fail, the town will lose faith, and Snodgrass' support will be gone.
Council is supported by many others as well. The various boards in town such as the Recreation Board, the Sheppard Family Park Board, the Arts and Culture Board, the Library Board, the Heritage Board and more all need to be included in the process. If at any time these boards feel as though their ideas were ignored or ridiculed, their support of council will diminish, and that will filter up all the way to the mayor's chair. This also applies to the many other volunteer organizations such as Minor Hockey, Foothills AIM Society, the many service organizations and many more.
Sounds like a lot, right? That's what High River needs, though. High River needs everyone to pull together, to put their two cents in, to know their two cents are being considered, and only then can they trust that council is truly moving forward.
Then Snodgrass will have the support he needs to be mayor.
Lindsay is the woman behind the man. High River, let's be the town behind the mayor.
Congratulations, Craig! Let me know what I can do to be a support for you.
I can't do a wrap-up to the municipal election without mentioning the man who I chose to stand behind. Richard Murray, it was a pleasure to work with you on this. I'm obviously disappointed that you didn't get in, but I'm very pleased with what you accomplished. The Minister of Culture has seen a vision for Arts and Culture in High River. The Emergency Management Act will be reviewed, and I'm positive you will be a part of making it better and more effective. And I know the new (and experienced) faces on council have been influenced by your passion.
You may not have gotten in, but you made one heck of a difference. I know that I have learned a lot, and am a better man for it. Keep moving forward, sir!
I've been doing a lot of research for this municipal election. I gotta tell you, I'm not as impressed as I think I should be.
With 23 active council candidates and 2 mayoral candidates in High River, each of them with a deep pool of talents, skills and experience, you'd think there would be some well-developed platforms.
Again, that's my youthful naivety showing through.
So begins my rants of what I can't stand this election. The first thing I can't stand ...
"When it comes to [insert issue here], I believe we need to listen to [insert list of stakeholders here] to see what their needs are, and how it will affect [insert list of related topics here]. Only then can we make strides that will be the best for the town."
Thank you for just describing the role of council. I forgot what job it was you were applying for.
Here's the word you must be careful of in an election: Listen. When you say "I'm going to listen to ...", what you're telling me is you haven't a freaking clue what those stakeholders want, need, or in some cases, who those stakeholders are. The word "listen" is a cover for your lack of understanding.
Don't get me wrong, listening is a skill that I believe every councillor should have. It's part of the job. If you don't do it, don't expect to be re-elected in four years.
But please don't use "listening" as a crutch for not understanding the needs your community.
In High River, I've heard the "listening" argument from a mayoral candidate (in the mayoral forum, and not just once, but 5 times), and I've seen the "listening" argument published on Facebook and discussed in the councillor forum more times than I can count on my extremities.
It disgusts me. It shows to me how much you don't understand our town, or the job you're applying for.
The ones who make listening a habit aren't going to tell you they are going to listen. You'll never hear them say it. They just do it. Better yet, in the future those candidates ARE going to listen, it's part of who they are, and they recognize that it's part of the job they are applying for. In many cases, those candidates don't even need to say they are going to "listen", because they've already done it.
It's how they came up with their ideas. It's how they've come to understand our town and they job they're applying for.
It's really hard to vote for someone who has no ideas. Unless you don't have any ideas of your own.
Oh, now I get it.
Well, here is one voter who is informed. Now, voters, I beg of you, everywhere, but most especially in High River: unless you want a council who is a vacuous hole for ideas, don't elect a self-professed "listener". Elect someone who already has a clue, because they've already done that listening. In High River, it's those people we need, because we need our town back on track.
And don't worry, they'll keep listening. Because that's what they do without having to be asked.
And if we can't slow this cart down, I may have to sell my house.
The cart, of course, is the massive load of mitigations that we all know must be done if High River is to remain in any state.
The horse is the labor required to pull this load properly and in the right direction. That horse (we'll name him "Informed Decision-Making") in this case should be built upon science, study, experience.
But gravity is ramming that cart up that horse's rear.
The gravity of the situation is that there is massive pressure on government and elected officials to do something, anything, to show that High River will still be standing when the next flood season ends.
Gravity is pushing us downhill. If we can't sort out some way of getting this horse back in charge, we're in serious trouble.
Above you see the latest recommendations from Town Council sent to the provincial government asking for money to do it. Your legend: Navy Blue is a berm. Yellow is a reinforced embankment/berm. Cyan is a dike. Fuschia is a dike. Green is a dike. Orange is a dike. White is the Little Bow Canal.
Let's analyze this, shall we?
If you put a wall up that is perpendicular to the flow of water, that water will stop, spread, and go around it if possible. That's the blue line. So if enough water comes up against that blue berm, it will spill around to the north into Riverside where, because there's a yellow berm in the way, it will have nowhere to drain. It will continue to pool up into a new lake, and my home would be in the middle of it.
The second they approve this is the second I put my home up for sale. But I will not be able to sell it, because anyone with half a brain will be able to figure out that I'm trying to sell a 3-season houseboat.
Further, the blue berm doesn't take into account the fact that the Town has been working on a development encircling the northwest corner of town called "Spitzee Crossing". This blue berm will not only pool up into currently existing residential neighbourhoods, but will negate the possibility of developing Spitzee Crossing.
Maybe that's the point, as that development has been in the works for over a decade, and has been stalled at every opportunity. The development, for that matter, has purposely avoided and given a great big buffer-zone to the Highwood River. It's one development that might actually make sense after the flood.
A further problem with this plan is that it is old. It was presented to the Alberta Government 4 years ago based on 10-year-old flood maps, and rejected. It hasn't changed, it is still built on old flood maps.
When we will get the picture? Nothing is the same!!!
The Town of High River and the M.D. of Foothills has sunk multitudes of taxpayer dollars into developing a cutting-edge piece of software that helps them plan flood mitigations. Not only does it map where water goes now and where it would go if the flows increased, it also gives planners the opportunity to say "what would happen if we put a berm here or a bridge there," and see the results.
But this request was not made in consultation with that software. It was made on old defunct maps.
I want to scream "stop being stupid!"
It's not the first time since the flood that knee-jerk reactions have cause harmful impacts. A Bow River guide explained to me today that the Highwood River, where it dumps into the Bow River, was crystal clear for the first half of August. On August 18, that changed, and it was black with mud.
Just days before, upstream about 20 miles, "scalping" of the riverbanks in High River had begun.
Making new berms, making old berms bigger, and making old dikes deeper, have absolutely no impact on flood control. Using old maps to determine solutions to new problems is like trying to install a carburetor on a Chevrolet Volt.
That same river guide pointed something out to me today. The Mississippi is relatively straight. Downstream of Calgary the Bow River is straight. The Sheep River is relatively straight. They were made that way by floods.
In High River, the Highwood River still "snakes" through town. In town limits alone, it turns 20 times. Why hasn't the flood straightened it out?
Because it hasn't been a fast and powerful flood. It certainly got to High River in a hurry, but once there, it was stopped up, and so the flow wasn't fast enough to actually allow the river to cut a straight line. This has to have happened in every flood for decades, or else the river would be straight today.
So what has existed for decades that has stopped that river up? Bridges. The first one; a railroad bridge whose efficacy at blocking the river is enhanced by a road bridge. That bridge causes the water to back up and spill into downtown every time a few trees gets caught on it. The second one; a new bridge on the Tongue Creek extension known to many as the George Groeneveld bridge. While its impact wasn't as significant, it definitely causes some backup when debris hits it. The third one is east of Aldersyde, where Highway 2 goes over the Highwood River. It got heavily backed up by debris, so much so that it spilled back into the east side of High River.
Bridges act as bottlenecks in the first place. When those bottlenecks get plugged, the water pools back, affecting everything upstream.
If there is an immediate solution that will alleviate issues, it is to fix the bridges. In the case of the rail bridge, get rid of it, it's not even in use anymore. The centre-street road bridge, it needs to be a four-lane road anyway, so raise it up and make it longer. The Highway 2 bridge by Aldersyde needs to be raised and widened so that debris cannot get hung up on it as easily.
If you give the water a place to go without bottlenecks, floods are far less likely to be as devastating. If you berm it in and try to "stop" the water from going somewhere, Mother Nature will just laugh at you as she bulldozes your berm with thousands of cubic meters of water.
Now I'm not the most brilliant hydrologist in the world, but even a layman like me can figure out what's going to happen here.
And the horse is starting to get scared.
We are now passed the cross-roads. It is now over two months since the flood, and less than two months before we have a new Town Council. Very soon, if you haven't already, you'll see the campaigns begin.
Look at what has happened. Basements have been stripped out. Tens of thousands of tonnes of our former lives have been taken to the dump. Infrastructure has been moved, changed, remodelled, and rebuilt. Yes indeed, lots has been done.
However, there are still multitudes who feel like they are being left behind. Landlords, renters, small and mid-sized businesses, and residents who have nothing left and limited coverage are still in limbo.
Yet out of the receding waters comes opportunity. In High River, a building stands empty where a library once stood. An incredible opportunity to rebuild the arts and culture in the town now sits in that empty shell. Schools in town are undergoing slight modifications to better use the space they have. Serious consideration to mitigation efforts is being given, and various roadblocks to getting those completed are being removed.
2 weeks after the flood I saw the "For Sale" signs pop up, and I was worried. Within the past two weeks, many of those "For Sale" signs have been replaced with "Sold" signs, and I am encouraged. My neighbours, two wonderful people I've had the pleasure of sharing a fence with, are moving on, but our new neighbours hale from Calgary, which reminds me that High River, even in it's most significant need, is still a place other people want to live.
Yes indeed, there is opportunity in them waters.
We need clear communication to understand how every action helps our town.
We need decisions to be informed and to fulfill a long-term vision. No more band-aid solutions with short term gains, long-term consequences.
We need to stop doing studies that are already done, and start moving forward.
We need to spend smart. Rather than tear out a road to fix one problem, repave it, and tear it out again months later to fix another that could have been fixed the first time, we need to spend the resources we have in the most efficient way possible.
We need to redevelop all of High River, not just the location of berms. This community is rich in culture, even though there is minimal support for it. The character of our town resides in our Downtown core, and it must be retained. Developments must be smart, forward-looking, and with a 10-year vision, not a re-election vision.
Some people still fear how High River will recover. The answer is "it will". How it recovers is dependent on who leads the recovery. The best parts of democracy start with the right people for the job in the local government.
I've heard time and time again "it won't matter what Council does, because in two years everyone will forget." Do not allow yourselves to forget. Hold Town Council to account. Only then can we have any hope of avoiding June 20, 2013 again.
I implore everyone to really get to know your Town of High River Council candidates. The right people can make this Town a beacon of light in Alberta. The wrong people can cause a flood of problems that we will be managing for decades.
The right people are electable because they will do what's right. The wrong people are electable because they are the loudest.
I believe Richard Murray is one of those "right people". Murray will do what's right. He won't be the loudest, but his background knowledge, his "big picture thinking", and his vision make him the "right person". So while I know he won't be the loudest, I'll be loud for him.
While I've already told you why, I still believe you need to see for yourself, so visit his site at www.voteformurray.ca.
Because I love this town.
We've lost focus. We are talking about the wrong things.
Don't get me wrong, the things we are talking about need to be discussed. Raj Sherman is exactly right asking about how contracts are being distributed. Danielle Smith is exactly right to call for a public inquiry. The PCs are right to get started on mapping and mitigations, they just don't know how to do it.
None of this matters to many Albertans right now.
We must focus on the disaster at hand, and get the recovery taken care of. The PCs aren't getting that job done, but they are right to focus on it.
There are still hundreds of people, maybe thousands, who have no idea where their insurance coverage stops and the Disaster Recovery Program starts. This is not specifically a High River problem, even though they dominate the news. There are people in Exshaw, Bragg Creek, Medicine Hat, Black Diamond and Calgary still in limbo waiting for answers from their insurance company. Companies are not necessarily at fault; they are trying to protect their bottom line, and they do so by saying "the Disaster Recovery Program will cover that for you". But the job of the government is to protect their citizens, and they aren't doing it.
There are still hundreds of people who also have no place to live. Again, this is not specifically a High River problem, although most of the people in this boat live there. However, there are those who live in Exshaw, Bragg Creek, Medicine Hat and Black Diamond who, because they weren't in the floodplain but were rather in the flood fringe or no zone at all, are unable to relocate. Some of those people are unable to build on the former site because, as could be expected with flood waters, the ground their home used to be on is now very far downstream. Soil contamination is preventing homeowners from returning.
An exemplar; George Lane Park, a beautiful park and campground in downtown High River and just on the flip side of a berm from the river, was heavily flooded; at least 6 inches of silt covered the land. Today, grass grows through the silt.
However, if you drive through the northeast end of the town, almost 60 days after the flood, no grass grows. Not even a weed.
You cannot rebuild a home where grass won't even grow, and expect families to let their kids play there.
The Town of High River's Downtown Core is nothing but empty shell after empty shell. If small business doesn't come back right away, there won't be a reason to rebuild High River.
Residents across southern Alberta know they need help transferring from insurance coverage to Disaster Recovery Funding, and many also know they need help determining how to live anywhere when they can't rebuild where they are. And all they are hearing from opposition parties is stuff they couldn't care less about ... yet.
So congratulations PCs, you are focusing on the right thing. However, that's where my congratulations stops.
It's in their best interests to do what they refuse to.
Under the leadership of Doug Griffiths (not Alison Redford, she has been woefully silent on everything), we have seen flood victims treated like children under his "father knows best" mentality.
At a meeting in High River, Griffiths' numerous "I know how you feel" statements showed he knows anything but how High Riverites feel.
When the official Disaster Recovery Program email is shown to have an autoresponder that says "we will not respond to your email" and is admonished for it, Griffiths responds with "It was fixed already. Try to keep up". Yes father, I will understand that even though you did wrong, I should not expect an apology, but rather will be scolded like a child.
My favorite Griffiths quote (insert sarcastic tone here): "taxpayers cannot be on the hook just because you're scared." I now understand that being scared precludes me from being a taxpayer, thanks for the education, Mr. Griffiths.
The problem is that when Griffiths sees a gymnasium stuffed to the point of being called an illegal assembly full of people who are trying to tell him his government is not doing enough, he patronizes them instead of coming up with solutions.
The solutions are easy. They are in the best interests of PCs, just to get the mob to be quiet, if not to actually help them.
Fund an ombudsman who will help individuals with their insurance, and once they're insurance is completed, have that same ombudsman guide them into the Disaster Recovery Process. The sooner people get into the DRP system, the less Mr. Griffiths will have to hear gripe from flood victims because, get this, he has actually helped them.
The only reason the government would not do this is because of the fear of the cost of paying these ombudsmen. I suggest spending a comparatively small amount on the salaries of these ombudsmen, as it will almost definitely save the DRP administrative costs, and will streamline the process, making it more cost effective and efficient.
Adjust the Disaster Recovery Program criteria to help those where rebuilding is simply not an option. Griffiths has already explained that each DRP claim will be treated on an individual basis. Why not just tell these people that if rebuilding is not an option, steps will be taken to either make it an option, or to relocate. Then Mr. Griffiths will not have to hear gripe from these flood victims because, get this, he has actually helped them.
The only reason the government won't do this is because they are afraid that once they start relocating even just one resident, they've set a precedent. It's a more dangerous precedent to make residents feel as though they have no choice but to walk away from everything they've worked for. Once you do that, the government is going to need to start increasing funding for homeless shelters, because that's where all these flood victims will end up.
Do whatever it takes to get small and mid-sized businesses back in their buildings. Intervene on rental/landlord disputes for a temporary time, and get the repair process expedited in business-places immediately. Help retail outlets purchase stock right away, they are already passed the point of ordering for Christmas. Do what it takes.
The only reason the government hasn't done this, as Doug Griffiths has explained, is that they are still focused on residents, and they'll get to businesses later. Not good enough. No business means no residents. He of all people should know this.
It has become obvious that fatherly Doug Griffiths will not listen to the children. He can't see the forest for the floodwaters.
It also became obvious long ago that the Associate Ministers in charge of Recovery and Reconstruction are not in the position to make these decisions, being relegated by the father to the back of the room or even further outside the hall, as was the case with Rick Fraser in High River last week.
So where is the leader of our province in all this? Nowhere. She doesn't run this province. Even when she said "we will return all to what it once was", the rest of her caucus isn't following through with it. She is not leading. Such a shame that she isn't even willing to consider what her late mother's neighbours are suggesting. Even her constituents in Calgary-Elbow can't get in touch with her. I wonder if the PCs will be willing to allow a non-leader to allow the caucus to continue to run amok?
I hope she steps up to the plate. She needs to show up to her own party. But she needs to do it now, because we're starting to lose focus on the needs of right now.
Numerous posts on various sites I have seen, including Facebook, news article comments, and many more, have given credit for the creation of unofficially named Lake Hampton to the new Tongue Creek Road extension, known to many as the George Groeneveld Bridge, or 498th Avenue. At first blush, that would make sense, given the map below.
However, people passing this judgement seem to have forgotten that this map is woefully incomplete. It's missing the road that goes past the cemetery (5th Street) and doesn't even show Tongue Creek Road, nor the new overpass.
It also doesn't show how far north Lake Hampton actually goes.
Observe an updated map of High River, with some annotations that I will explain. I recommend clicking on it to read the annotations.
The Highwood normally flows underneath Tongue Creek Road at the new George Groeneveld Bridge. The floodplain goes right up to those green lines, which is where 5th Avenue used to be before the overpass was built. For every flood previous to this one, the old 5th Street berm prevented the water from coming back. During the first day of the flood, this was still true. However, once it got north past Tongue Creek Road, the water levels in this year's flood were beyond anything we'd ever seen, and the banks were over-run.
The water spilled out into farmer's fields north of the Tongue Creek Road, and continued filling up, almost all the way out to Cargill. The only thing preventing it from flowing further east was Highway 2. Tongue Creek Road dips a bit before rising to the new overpass, and that is where the water spilled back. This is what the media meant when they said "the river had turned back on itself".
Between the new 5th Street and the new 20th Street Crossover, the land is low, and dips ultimately to just north of the Hamptons. When the water came over Tongue Creek Road, the terrain was already perfectly designed to become a lake. No developers had worked there yet, and so no blame can be laid on them for making the land too low. This low-lying land was always there. It was just that there had never been that much water before.
Observe the map below, circa 2002. Holy Spirit Academy, the school that remained underwater for almost a month in this year's flood, hadn't even been built yet. Neither had the Tongue Creek extension nor the new overpass.
5th Street was always there. The river always ran north. 498th Avenue was always there. Had we not built the extension to Tongue Creek Road, the area we now know as the Hamptons would still have become a lake. All those naysayers suggesting the new road caused all this are dead wrong.
Could we have seen this coming? Considering Lake Hampton eventually covered approximately 15 square miles of land (approximately the same size as Sylvan Lake), I'd say no.
Did those berms affect the flow, and make the creation of Lake Hampton more likely? Certainly a possibility. Where that berm ended is where the breach of the banks occurred that ended up resulting in half of a town sitting underwater for 3 weeks. I can't imagine that a berm is the best solution on its own anymore.
So what do we do instead of berms? I'll save that for the next post.
(For interest's sake, now that the Lake has been pumped out, some other lines of land have reappeared, particularly Tongue Creek Road, 20th Street, and a fenceline that once separated the Town of High River from the M.D. of the Foothills, somewhat north of the Hamptons. These lines of land have now effectively cut Lake Hampton into 4 bodies of water, which I have labelled Lake Hampton 1, 2, 3 and 4 in my annotated map)
A recent column in the Calgary Sun suggested that Premier Alison Redford's announcement of policy on disaster relief funding for future floods was poorly timed, and not sensitive to the needs of High Riverites. "The premier truly is politically tone deaf," charges the Editorial.
Pot, meet kettle.
Imagine a scenario when you have been unable to enter your flood-ravaged home for 3 weeks, and when you finally do, nothing in your house is salvageable because of the high quantities of mould. You start cleaning up, and very shortly are asking "what for?" This is what thousands of High Riverites are doing as I type this.
Now imagine this scenario with no announcements from the province or municipal governments explaining what's next. Some people move away, because they can't handle the recovery. If they don't get disaster relief funding, they declare bankrupcy and hope for the best in the future. Others stay, use whatever funding they can get to return the house to liveable state, but will never be able to sell it because no government is saying whether or not they will be covered for future events. Then, 3 years later, after another political election, the government is in the "safe" zone and can make the controversially timed announcement that they will not get covered if they didn't move.
If that were to actually happen (which thankfully it won't), I would join the riots.
High Riverites are stronger people than the Calgary Sun gives us credit for. We don't need our Premier to stroke our hair and say "there there, there there." We need our Premier to say "don't build there again, and here's some relief funding to help you make that decision."
Good political decisions are those that are made in the best interests of all Albertans, regardless of the sensitivity of the timing.
Now this policy is a good one for all Albertans, not just High Riverites. Not making the announcement would have been far less sensitive to our needs.
That being said, the announcement is devoid of detail. We could look at the current Alberta Environment Flood Mapping application, but it is now badly out of date. Compare the two pictures below.
The first is Alberta Environment's Flood Mapping app. The second is a map of the affected areas in the Town of High River's re-entry plan. Notice how Alberta Environment said there was no risk of floods in the yellow, and yet that is where all the standing water is?
People who were in those yellow areas, yet still flooded out anyway, don't even know if they are in a flood plain or flood fringe zone. There was never any indication that they were in danger, so that's why they built there. Now what?
All levels of government need to double ... no, quintuple their efforts to get those flood mapping applications updated with current data, so those people who never expected flooding was a possibility will know whether or not that is still the case.
Then, when it comes to mitigation, we must make decisions that make sense.
The Province says "don't build in a flood plain". Assuming we know where that flood plain is, I'm sure every High Riverite will say "thanks, I hadn't figured that out yet."
But then the Province says "if you are in the flood fringe, fortify against floods." Then I see what Alberta Environment's idea of fortification looks like.
You don't need to be an engineer to see the problem here. If every municipality allowed the building of many flood proofed areas, floodway and flood fringe levels would rise, the flood hazard areas would change, and we'd be back to square one.
Simply flood proofing is obviously not the best course of action if it is the only course of action. There must be more. Building berms or dykes aren't the best options either for the same reason. The reason water levels rise is because they have nowhere else to go. You build a berm to prevent the water from flowing, it goes somewhere else. You build a dyke to divert the water, once it arrives at its destination, it still needs somewhere to go.
I'm no expert at this. But this much I can figure out for myself. There are experts elsewhere in the world that can help us out with this. Ask those who manage the mighty Mississippi. Ask those in the Netherlands who deal with floods regularly. Those along the Nile use floods to their advantage. Somebody out there can help us figure out how to manage our ever-changing climate, and the likelihood that this flood can happen again.
I'm glad for the announcement of flood relief policies. It tells us what to expect, and now we can plan for it. While the PCs missed a lot prior to the flood (namely sitting on a flood mitigation report), they at least got that part right. Now the real test is if they'll follow up on that policy and give us the details.
We need those details now. We need to demand it. If we have to wait six years for them, we won't be asking the PCs for it, because they won't have been elected again. We need that action, and we need it now.
And we need the patronization of High Riverites to stop. We don't need sensitivity. We need action.