July 8 storm still making waves.

Reading between the lines of a letter from Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to City Manager, Joe Penachetti, the question from Joe appears to have been, ‘OK, unlike Mississauga, the City of Toronto screwed up and missed the deadline to claim some disaster relief from the province. Please bend the rules – oh, and while you’re at it look for any other money that we could tap into’.

The reply from Deputy Minister Laurie LeBlanc says ‘no’ in the nicest possible way, pointing out that Toronto failed to act within the two-week deadline. If you’ve ever seen episodes of Yes Minister, you’ll really appreciate the talent required to enclose an upright middle finger inside a letter.

While Toronto keeps the province and much of the country awash in cash, rules apparently cannot be broken.

Residents’ group plans flooding lawsuit

A Mount Dennis residents’ group is planning a lawsuit against the city and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. An organizer says that they are suing based on the city’s mismanagement of the storm sewer system.

The group is now looking for members and people who have legal or technical expertise. If you want to be a part, drop me a line, and I’ll forward your information along.

The medium is the message.

The flood information meeting held on Wednesday July 31st at Archbishop Romero High School was a follow-up to the one held on July 19th at York Council Chambers. Again, almost 200 residents filled the gym. It was immediately apparent that steps had been taken to control their response. For whatever reason, a uniformed police officer was posted at the back of the room. If Ms. Nunziata felt threatened by this crowd of grandparents, parents, and children, she must lead a very sheltered life.

The meeting format was organized by Ward 11 resident, Sean McConnell. He began the proceedings by restricting questions to ‘only those who live in the area and whose homes have been flooded’.

Organizer Sean McConnell sets the ground rules.
Organizer Sean McConnell sets the ground rules.

Once the introductions were over, the meeting began with a series of anonymous softball questions allegedly emailed from residents. Whether the authors of these questions were in the audience or not seemed irrelevant. A phalanx of City of Toronto and TRCA officials was on hand to provide responses. After these had been answered, Councillor Nunziata talked about what the city was doing  to address residents’ concerns. Residents were then permitted to come to the microphone to seek answers.

Representatives from the city, TRCA and Granite Claims listen to residents.
Representatives from the city, TRCA and Granite Claims listen to residents.

Some interesting points were raised during the audience questions.

One resident’s basement flooded on the 7th July, the day before the storm and he was told by a city representative that the sewer was blocked. The resident showed proof that a city employee had reported the matter in spite of statements to the contrary from the official at the meeting.

A resident shows proof that sewers were blocked the day before the flood.
A resident shows proof that sewers were blocked the day before the flood.

City Council has passed a motion to ‘look at opportunities to advance’ a ‘sewer overflow control’ public meeting scheduled for the fall of 2013.

Until the assessment is done it will take 3-5 years to get a solution implemented.

Quick fixes such as a berm along Black Creek might provide a temporary solution.

The city has ended its special garbage collection ( information to the contrary was given during the meeting).

Some residents reported that Backflow prevention valves had failed. Apparently they require a homeowner inspection every three months and flushing out twice annually otherwise they are liable to fail.  There is a proposal to increase funding to allow a greater subsidy but the process is complicated, expensive and probably beyond the reach of many. As one resident pointed out, the unpleasant task of inspection and flushing will likely be neglected too.

Another council motion has requested consideration of an increase in backflow valve subsidies.

If your backflow valve failed, the city says your contractor is responsible, not the city.

If residents think that city negligence caused damage to their properties, they should make a claim.

Backflow valves and a sump pump on display.
Backflow valves and a sump pump on display.

The bridge on Humber Boulevard that crosses the Black Creek concrete trench is irreparably damaged and will be replaced.

The City had an opportunity to apply to the province for state of emergency funding but unlike neighbouring Mississauga, failed to do so before the deadline.

Here is a list of basement flooding protection projects taking place in Toronto from 2013-2016. Nothing is planned for Ward 11.

Laura Albanese confirms that unlike Mississauga, Toronto failed to act before the deadline.
MPP Laura Albanese confirms that unlike Mississauga, Toronto failed to act before the deadline.

Towards the end of the meeting I was challenged by Sean, one of MPP Laura Albanese’s staffers, stating that I would need signed releases for the photographs I was taking. Luckily, not having been born recently (or even yesterday) I was able to help the young man with this particular gap in his education.

Albanese staffer Sean possibly obtaining legal advice on photography.
Laura Albanese staffer Sean possibly listening to legal advice on photography in public meetings.

No doubt Ms. Nunziata considers the meeting a success. Nobody shouted at her and her message was heard clearly. The message was, ‘we’re doing all we can to help’. If only that was true.

The fact is that residents have been let down by a lack of action. The flooding of basements in certain areas of the city has been public knowledge for years – for example this map from 2005 clearly shows chronic flooding areas (Ward 11, areas 6 and 4) in Weston and around Cordella Avenue. If planning had started in 2005, the problem would have been solved by now.

Politicians have focussed on more glamorous projects and on keeping property taxes low. If anyone needs evidence of the neglect of sewers, all they have to do is walk through Lions Park where a large sewer runs alongside the Humber. On most days the park smells like, …well, a flooded basement.

Nunziata gets an earful.

Councillor Frances Nunziata
Councillor Frances Nunziata speaks to residents affected by the flooding.

Close to 200 residents packed the York Civic Chamber Friday evening for an information session in the aftermath of the July 8th storm that hit Toronto. People impacted by basement flooding and sewer backups, especially in the Cordella Avenue area of York South-Weston are struggling to get their lives back to normal. Some are still without hot water and many have yet to receive a response from the city or their insurance companies. Ms Nunziata was flanked by a panel of city water engineers, claims adjusters and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. A representative from MPP Laura Albanese was also on the panel but didn’t participate. Toronto’s head of Stormwater Management, Ted Bowering began the evening with a talk that he had delivered many times before. Unfortunately the dry and glacially slow presentation outlining why peoples’ basements were flooded was not what residents were looking for. When Bowering estimated that a study of the local problem might be completed by March of 2014, the room erupted with anger. Many blamed the city for not fixing a problem that has been evident for years. Storm and sanitary sewers are combined in many areas and since there are fewer open spaces, rain is no longer absorbed by the ground. This causes sewage to regularly back up into basements. There is a downspout disconnection program that the city hopes will lead to less water in storm sewers but with smaller lots, downspouts simply drain onto pavement and into the sewers anyway. What is needed are larger, separated sewers so that storm water doesn’t get into and overwhelm sanitary sewers.

A TRCA representative talked about Black Creek and the channel, constructed in the 1960s that is now inadequate for the job, is poorly maintained and doesn’t drain floodwater off adjacent streets. Next, a City of Toronto insurance adjuster asked residents to submit claims to the city and they would be considered but several residents interrupted his presentation to indicate that the city had denied claims in the past and had invited them to sue if they didn’t like the answer.

As the meeting progressed, Ms. Nunziata was repeatedly shouted down by residents expressing anger that nothing is being done for them and the lack of response from the city. The last straw came when a representative from Mike Sullivan’s office took to the floor and tried to confront the councillor about a lack of support for infrastructure. Ms Nunziata walked off the podium and seemed to end the meeting leaving residents frustrated and bewildered. She eventually came back and resumed listening to residents but by that time, many had left. It is hoped that another meeting will be held that will have a more structured format so that all sides will be able to speak without interruption.

As for the solution to flooding, this will require an intelligent approach with upgraded sewers, holding tanks to store floodwater until it can be safely released but most of all, a commitment from councillors to implement a speedy solution that works and to find the money that will be necessary. With two major storms already this year, the next one may be just around the corner. Infrastructure maintenance and improvement isn’t sexy but when it’s neglected, the consequences cause a lot of suffering and unnecessary expense for residents and well-deserved political fallout for elected representatives.

A tearful resident confronts Councillor Nunziata at the end of the meeting.
A tearful resident confronts Councillor Nunziata at the end of the meeting.