General News

Bolton flood victims reflect on ‘traumatic time’ six months later

October 10, 2019   ·   0 Comments

Written By KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD

“There’s been a lot of good…we’ve met some new friends and neighbours, so we have a better sense of community. We’re more politically aware than we were before,” so says Tracey Lehman, looking on the bright side of things six months after the basement apartment her daughter and granddaughter share in her house was destroyed in a flood that affected many residents of Bolton permanently. 

It’s a recreation of a scene from six months earlier, as a long table of the March 14th’s flood victims sit down with The Citizen again to inform the rest of the community as to what has happened since an ice jam on the Humber River melted too quickly and overflowed into their houses. Although Lehman puts a brave face on and speaks to the community spirit the crisis precipitated, many of these Caledon residents are still struggling to dry out different areas of their lives in the flood aftermath.

“To be honest, I don’t have any more,” Lehman continues. “I don’t have anymore resources, energy or time.”

Rehashing the immediate events of the flood is not the purpose of this article, and is recounted elsewhere. Suffice to say that a delegation committee spearheaded by three non-flood victim volunteers, Sherry Briochi, Marion Upshall, and Mira Budd, went before Council and the Toronto Recreation and Conservation Authority more than once on behalf of their affected neighbours, looking for governmental assistance and to take steps to ensure such an easily avoidable situation did not happen again. They also, in conjunction with Councillors Annette Groves and Tony Rosa who organized a furniture drive, put together several fundraising initiatives to get these families back on their feet. 

“These ladies were the heart, soul, and push,” Lehman says,

Events were largely left off for the summer after the delegation had a special meeting of Council in May, where both the province, TRCA, and Town of Caledon made several promises. The most important of which involved providing grants for disaster relief, to retain a consultant, an updated flood response plan based on previous iterations and the outline of an emergency response disaster relief handbook devised by the Flood Committee, as well as a post-report by the TRCA (promised for September). 

By the time the September rolled around and The Citizen reached out to some of these organizations, it was clear the residents affected by the flood, who had relied on the promise of assistance from various governing bodies, were largely left to fend for themselves over the summer to rebuild their homes and their lives.

The TRCA’s Response

Firstly, the promised post-report had not been written, although a consulting firm called KGS Group had been contracted to do a study. When questioned, the TRCA promised the completed report for December. When asked what steps the Region is taking to ensure there is no repeat this winter and spring, the TRCA released the following statement:

1. The “Lessons Learned and Next Steps” section of the Board Report provides the following answer:

“TRCA staff convened on March 18 to initiate the post-event analysis and continue the collection of high water marks. TRCA has also initiated the process to engage a consultant to conduct a retrospective engineering study of the jam causes. Pertinent information from this study will be taken into account for the detailed design of the preferred berm remediation option. A notable lesson learned this season was in the use of drones in surveying ice conditions both pro-actively (in February), and during the Bolton Jam event itself. Planned improvements to the River Ice Monitoring program include the use of various aerial surveillance methods, including drone, helicopter, and potentially satellite imagery in order to increase monitoring coverage area. As per the advice of geotechnical staff, the berm should continue to be monitored for any evidence of settling, and any repairs required will be completed as part of the planned rehabilitation of the berm. Together with the Town of Caledon, workflows developed during this emergency can be codified for future incident response plans.”

The Flood Committee was not thrilled with the delay in the report. “That’s great,” comments Tracey Lehman when informed about the delay, “but what about next spring?…we can’t control Mother Nature, we need a flood-specific plan now…We may not be able to stop [the next] flood, so what we need is a mitigation plan,” the implication being that a cohesive plan in place would be preferable before the onset of winter. “The storms are getting worse, and the water is getting higher…We need a disaster plan. We want it posted. We want it before it freezes.”

More than just the damage itself, the great problem most affected faced was a lack of insurance coverage, owing to a clause in most clients’ agreements that did not cover “overland” flooding insurance, something none of the residents were made aware of when they purchased their policies. This specific kind of insurance is only seven years old, and even if residents in the affected area applied, they would be denied this coverage as they are considered a “red” or “high risk” area. “It’s like a [convicted] drunk driver trying to get insurance,” explains Marion Upshall. 

The Province Steps In

Recognizing the need for some kind of financial aid, the provincial government stepped in, offering grants to cover labour and construction costs, up to a point.

 According to the Disaster Recovery Assistance Plan, “costs relating to uninsured essential property that is damaged may be applied for where insurance coverage is only available for a portion of the value of the lost property…the program may provide partial coverage [to those] also affected by overland flooding.”

When it came to filing claims and dealing with the provincial adjustors, “everybody’s story was different,” says Lehman, who’s claim was approved in late September. Earlier in the month, Lehman had been candid with The Citizen about the extent of the damage to the basement apartment her daughter and granddaughter had been living in, and how much of a struggle they had faced over the summer to rebuild and recoup their losses. “We’re between $15-17 000 for replacing the furnace, air conditioner, insulation, dry wall, and general materials. Because [the province] hasn’t come back to us with anything, I’ve been borrowing…If this had been my fault, my insurance would have covered it, but because it was ‘an Act of God’, it’s the Town’s fault and I have to pay?” Lehman asks with incredulity.

This goes into another major issue with those applying for disaster relief assistance. All applicants had to pay for any costs upfront, later to be reimbursed after filing the necessary paperwork with the province and meeting with the adjustor. If residents could provide an estimate, they were given a percentage for a down payment to a contractor, but the contractor would have to agree to wait to be paid the principle until the reimbursement came through. Most residents simply did not have the liquid assets lying around to start the process, and some still haven’t even begun to either file a claim or start rebuilding. “With no insurance and no disaster relief upfront,” says Lehman, “people are forced to sit and do nothing, or do it themselves. And the [Town and Province] don’t get it. We’re starting to get money back now,” says Lehman, “that we can reinvest into something we can use…The good news is, I’ve become very handy with power tools.” Lehman’s daughter and granddaughter, who’s basement apartment was ruined in the flood, are now living temporarily on the same floor as Lehman until the basement is repaired and they can move back in.

Another family, recent immigrants from Portugal living in a basement apartment have since moved into cramped quarters with relatives in Etobicoke after their apartment and possessions were completely destroyed in the flood. “The river runneth through it,” says Briochi. “It was bad. They were lucky to be alive.” To add insult to injury, after storing donated furniture items in the Albion-Bolton Recreation Centre for a few months, the Town obliged them to move their things into storage at their own cost, using the excuse of needing the space for a children’s camp. “God forbid anybody have a heart and compassion at the Town of Caledon,” remarks Briochi.

Starr Kaski, in contrast, has had relative success with applying for and receiving compensation for the damage to her house fairly quickly. However, during the flood, she struggled with even being recognized as a resident of Bolton, was told her address did not exist by emergency workers, and her name was lost five times on the list of affected residents, who needed to be registered on that list to receive emergency accommodation and support. “Nobody was talking to anybody,” says Jones of her experience with dealing with emergency responders. “No one from the Town ever spoke to me.” It took Kaski three weeks to get her hydro back up and running. 

Michael Pascucci and his wife were also residents for whom insurance became a very expensive and useless agreement. Not covered for any of the damage because they lacked the “overland insurance” clause, they have as yet not attempted to rebuild or apply for the provincial grant. “For us,” says Michael, “because the water [outside] was gone in two, people forgot. Meanwhile there’s still three feet of water in the basement and everything is still destroyed.”

Another residents, wishing to remain anonymous, reports receiving about half of what they applied for with the provincial grant. “Unfortunately,” says the source, “due to medical issues I haven’t been able to be all over this as I would like to. I did submit pictures of washer, dryer, freezer with my original claim however was told I need to purchase these before they will assess for refund.   I have just done that this weekend…Resubmitted for lodging & food. Still waiting on that…Refusal for garden tractor, unfortunately I explained it is needed for medical reasons (with doctors note) but still no consideration…Unfortunately on things unclaimable from outside shed I am out of pocket a lot especially when the loss wasn’t necessary. Rebuilding of basement drywalling & rebuilding of basement steps I cant afford to rebuild them at this time so there is no point on getting a quote.” 

Of her mother’s situation, the long time Bolton resident reports, “her claim was mailed in a month before mine and she has yet to hear back from them. My sister contacted them yesterday and they are supposed to be starting her claim, we will see if we hear from them anytime soon. I contacted the town of Caledon 3 weeks ago regarding the sidewalk still having a hole in it from the digging during the flood and was told it isn’t their department to contact region of peel. I have tried twice and sit on hold so the holes and the pylons can sit there another 6 months. Again I would like to thank you ladies for everything you have done for all of us.   Much more than either the town of Caledon or the TRCA have done for us.”

For families and individuals to take it upon themselves to rebuild their homes, Briochi asks, “if they don’t know about home maintenance, what makes you think they know how to tear down and rebuild?”

Marion Upshall, who runs a home building company, adds, “giving a generic list of links without any guidance doesn’t help.” The Province has subsequently provided one consultant to help residents with rebuilding their homes.

When contacted, the office of MPP Sylvia Jones, responsible for overseeing the Disaster Relief, released this statement:

“The safety of families in Dufferin-Caledon will always be my top priority as MPP. Our communities were heartbroken by the flooding that affected homes in Bolton, and I want to thank the first responders, volunteers and concerned citizens who stepped forward to keep their neighbours safe in these very difficult times.

I have been working with the Minister of Municipal Affairs on providing assistance to Bolton residents who were affected by the flood. It is important that disaster assistance is accessible to those who are eligible, and we are determined to ensure help is there when and where it is needed to keep people safe and meet their essential needs. While Disaster Response Assistance (DRAO) is not designed to replace insurance, we have taken steps to ensure information is accessible to help individuals and families understand what they are eligible for and get them the help they need quicker and more efficiently.

As a result of feedback from Ontarians, we have added resources and personnel to help serve applicants of the program. For example, we have made improvements to the list of eligible items and updated the caps on them to provide more assistance. Detailed information about Ontario’s disaster recovery assistance program is available on the government’s website – Ontario.ca/DisasterAssistance.”

MANY MEETINGS

In the wake of the disaster, there was such a state of confusion that further impeded dealing with the situation at hand. In terms of getting assistance and recognition from the Town, Province, and TRCA, “it was insane what we had to go through just to get the delegation [before Town Council],” says Briochi. “I had to force that delegation.” 

In the most recent Town Council on September 24th, Fuwing Wong, General Manager of Finance and Infrastructure Services for the Town, stated he was not aware of the infamous report-to-come from the TRCA, despite the many mentions of it at previous council meetings. “We went in with a positive idea to promote economic development [by using local businesses to rebuild], but more importantly to work in partnership with Council to help with the process,”  says Briochi with exasperation.

Several meetings in various capacities were held in the months following the flood, usually at the behest of the Flood Committee and delegation, with mixed results in the minds of those involved. The Town Council and delegation meeting was held in March  immediately after the events, a second, private residents’ meeting with Councillors Groves and Rosa was held in April to address concerns going forward. Another  residents’ meeting was held in May, this time with Mayor Thompson, a representative from the provincial government, and representatives from the TRCA. “We continued to follow up to ensure we had this third meeting,” says Upshall, “and thankfully it happened.” This third meeting resulted in the promises mentioned at the beginning of this article. Since Council has reconvened in September, issues are still being sorted and residents’ problems continue to be heard out.

Discussing how concerns about the ice jams rising water levels were largely ignored by the Town in February and March, Starr Jones comments, “I would just like the Town to be a little more respectful and actually listen to the people who live here. It’s right in our backyard, we can see what’s going on, and we know the area.”

“They waited too long [to act]”, is the consensus of the group on the Town’s response to the events of March 13th and 14th. “The provincial funding is not adequate, and no one’s house is ever going to be exactly the way it was. Not even close.”

“I want the Town to be held accountable for a responsible strategic plan going forward, so I don’t stress every March that this is going to happen again,” says Lehman. She goes on to discuss what had been the ambiguous role of the TRCA and the municipality when it came to making the calls about the flood. “We know now that the TRCA is an advisory board to the municipality.” On March 13th and 14th, the TRCA had issued warnings, which the Town failed to act on. There has subsequently been much inquiry and debate into which governing body is ultimately responsible for acting to prevent and deal with emergencies such as the Bolton Flood, which was very unclear to all parties at the time. 

“At the end of the day, perhaps [Mayor Thompson] didn’t understand he could pull the trigger, and didn’t want to get political and step on the TRCA’s toes. Maybe that’s what happened, but step up now. And now, knowing what we know, make [the necessary] change[s]…Can the Town put [the emergency response guide] in the newspaper and tell us what the plan is? Can they give us the link so we can share it? Me going to the website and searching is not communication, to me,” concludes Lehman.

When asked for a statement regarding the Town’s conduct during and after the flood, as well as steps going forward, Mayor Thompson stated: 

“Natural disasters, like the Bolton Flood in March of this year, can be 

unpredictable and can test a community’s ability to respond and care for those 

affected.  I am very proud of the response of the Town, our community partners, 

agencies and, most of all, the kindness of Caledon residents and businesses. 

During the event, The Town of Caledon’s Community Emergency Response Plan was 

put in place to bring the necessary support organizations together to coordinate 

and provide essential services, such as accommodations, to those in need.  

Following the flood, the Town worked very hard with our local MPP to secure 

funding through the Province’s Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians 

reimbursement program. 

We continue to work with TRCA to ensure residents have the necessary information 

available for flood emergencies, so that they know what to do in case of a flood 

and how to keep their family safe.”

Also of concern to residents are the minutes and action item updates from these various meetings and Town Councils. When asked to provide minutes of the May meeting, Sandra Sharpe of the Mayor’s Office sent this statement:

“I’m sorry if there was confusion however to clarify the purpose of the second meeting was to provide an opportunity for impacted residents to hear from the Province on the disaster relief funding. No minutes were taken. I can refer you to our Public Works and TRCA about measures they are taking to mitigate any further impacts to flood in the area.”

Not having an official record of what was said between municipality and residents, and therefore what may or may not have been agreed upon, is problematic for residents and the Flood Committee trying to make their way through the bureaucratic quagmire, with residents having to flit between the TRCA, the provincial government, and the Town for answers.

“We have a lot left to do,” says Lehman. “My big thing right now is we cannot change the past. I want to know what the long-term plan is, with the Farmer’s Almanac predicting a similar winter that gets cold and heats up. I have seen the TRCA down in that valley for two weeks counting trees instead of removing debris from the river…We’re starting to move forward now, but we’re going into another winter, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. Why would we want to go through this again? We’re dealing with these types of water levels again still in the fall.”

“It’s not just about the money,” adds Starr Kaski, “It’s the emotional and physical toll.”



         

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