Spending will follow disaster paperwork, outgoing minister promises

British Columbians have been told for years that their governments are taking action to protect residents from extreme weather and natural disasters. But with record numbers of people forced from their homes in recent years, the procession of disasters suggests BC is only becoming more, not less, vulnerable to extreme weather.

As the bill from 2021’s storms continues to be tallied up, BC’s public safety minister says people should be confident that their governments will finally put their money where their mouths are.

In a recent 25-minute sit-down interview with The Current, Mike Farnworth said the provincial and the federal governments will spend what it takes to protect them from natural disasters.

That’s hardly a new promise from a Canadian politician. But Farnworth said the fallout from last year’s storms will lead to significant improvements in BC’s ability to prepare for future extreme weather events and deal with the fallout when they occur. Pressed repeatedly on whether necessary money would follow, Farnworth said it would.

“If you’re going to get ahead, you’re going to have to spend,” he said.

Paperwork, then action

At the time of the interview, Farnworth was the minister in charge of Emergency Management BC as part of his role as public safety minister. Just a few days later, BC’s new premier announced the creation of a new Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness headed by North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma.

A highly regarded politician, communicator, and engineer, Ma will inherit a daunting to-do list. She will have to pass new legislation to guide emergency responses, and figure out which potential disasters deserve the most attention—and government money. She will also head vital work on new disaster mitigation plans and assessments of the province’s vulnerabilities. (You can read her mandate letter from Premier David Eby here.)

In a pre-departure interview with The Current, Farnworth said the last two years of wildfires, heat domes, and floods have led to an improved understanding of how to prepare for future events. That includes developing better ways to communicate with British Columbians, steps to mitigate the consequences of heat waves, and how evacuation centres can better meet the needs of those fleeing fires and floods.

Those experiences will also inform the planning work is underway. Meanwhile, Farnworth said the new legislation can help address concerns like those from Chawathil First Nation, which complained about difficulties in communicating with the District of Hope during a recent wildfire.

The legislation will tell communities both what they need to do to prepare for potential wildfires and other disasters, and how they must interact with other stakeholders, including Indigenous communities.

“We need to ensure that that communication is taking place with local First Nations, that their people are working together, not at cross purposes,” he said.

And Farnworth suggested that all the new studies, legislation, and paperwork will set the stage for more funding to actually take action on the ground. Billions need to be spent to improve flooding protections and the resiliency of BC’s transportation networks and communities across the province.

Farnworth said that in many cases the risk is well-known and now it’s a matter of figuring out what is to be done about it. In Abbotsford, for example, Farnworth said the province is waiting on the city for more details about the pumphouse it wants to build on Sumas River.

“I’m confident that as this stuff comes back, that we will be in a position to go, “OK, here’s the improvements that need to be made.’”

And Farnworth acknowledged substantial spending and investments will be needed to stop post-disaster cleanup and repair costs from continuing to spiral upwards.

“If you’re going to get ahead, you’re going to have to spend,” he said. “That’s done in a variety of different ways, right? It’s done when you’re building infrastructure, when you’re building a bridge, when you’re redoing the road, when you’re expanding a highway, when you’re building bridges, when you’re building schools, when you’re looking at housing developments, all of those things come together.”

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