How to protect your cottage from floods

Updated: March 20, 2019

person-in-a-raincoat-in-flood Photo by Juergen Faelchle/Shutterstock

As we draw nearer to spring, temperatures grow mild, snow melts, and water rises. Conservation Authorities have begun to issue flood warnings in Ontario, but extreme weather like a pluvial flood—one driven by heavy rainfall—can leave you with “little to no warning,” says Tamsin Lyle, the principal at Ebbwater Consulting, a Vancouver-based company that provides flood management solutions.

Your property’s susceptibility to flood damage is often dependent on its proximity to waterways and bodies of water. Steep creeks, for instance, are subject to “flashy runoff”—intense stormwater runoff that increases in volume quickly during heavy rainfall with little warning. Big river systems and coastlines, on the other hand, still flood but at a much slower rate. “Look at the Red River in Manitoba, famous for its flooding problems,” Lyle says. “You can have up to six weeks of warning there because it’s such a slow-moving river.”

But often it’s difficult to tell whether your property is on a flood plain and at risk of water damage. Most provincial governments regulate flood plains and provide relevant information on their websites, but these can be difficult to navigate. In Ontario, for instance, flood plain identification is the responsibility of the municipalities and CAs, leaving no consistent map for the province. And many of the maps that do exist were drawn decades ago and are now out of date. Instead, Lyle goes by the advice of a U.S. Army commander who worked on relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, who said, “If you look out the window and see water, you’re in the goddamn flood plain.”

Cottagers almost always fall under that definition. There are a few things you can do to make your waterfront property “flood resilient.” “Think about the structure itself,” Lyle says. “If you’re building a new cottage or home, it’s very important that the lower levels are either lifted up above what’s called a flood construction level, or that the materials used in that area of the home, the lower part, are designed to be wet.” You want to avoid drywall in lower levels like the basement where water can reach, as well as think about where to place such things as electrical sockets and mechanical equipment that can be dangerous when they get wet. Otherwise, it’s pretty logical, Lyle says. “Don’t put all your valuables in the basement. Don’t store your photographs and all the things that can be very badly damaged by a flood in a place that will get wet. Put them in the attic.”

There are other things you can do inside the cottage to mitigate damages. Instead of putting hardwood floors in a finished basement, install tiles. And if you have furniture in a lower level, make sure it’s light and easy to carry in case you have to make a quick exit.

If you do find yourself in an immediate flood situation, Lyle advises that you not waste your time building sandbag walls. “They tend to be quite ineffective except to make you feel good because you’re doing something. But sandbags themselves tend to fail, and then they’re a complete disaster to clean up afterwards because they’re full of contaminated water.” As much as abandoning your cottage or home goes against human instinct, Lyle says that it’s better to put your safety first and advises to retrieve any valuables and then retreat to a safe distance.

It’s also important to find out if you have flood insurance and to make sure that it’s up to date. But check your policy closely, as the Insurance Bureau of Canada says that overland flooding—flooding caused “when water from rivers, streams or other bodies of water flows onto dry land and causes damage to homes”—is often not automatically covered, but may be available to purchase as optional coverage.

Otherwise, if you are at the cottage this spring as the snow melts and water begins to rise, keep on top of flood warnings, and stay alert and monitor nearby waterways and bodies of water. “None of this is rocket science,” Lyle says. “It’s all common sense.”

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