WINNIPEG – The cost of caring for Manitoba’s flood evacuees has ballooned to $79 million so far and officials say there is no telling how high the final bill to taxpayers could be.
They say it costs about $1.5 million a month to care for First Nations residents who are still unable to return to their homes following severe spring flooding in 2011. The evacuees are scattered around Winnipeg, living in hotels and rental accommodation while officials search for permanent homes.
Federal government officials say they don’t know how much the evacuation will end up costing, but they are working with the province and First Nations leaders to find a permanent solution.
“The evacuation services currently being provided will end when evacuees are able to return home,” said Jeff Solmundson, spokesperson with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in an email. “An estimate of future costs for the evacuation is not available.”
The department wouldn’t provide someone to speak in greater detail about the evacuation costs.
First Nation leaders have criticized the government’s handling of the evacuation, saying cash could have been better spent on semi-permanent homes rather than the “knee-jerk reaction” of putting people up in hotels.
The handling of the long-term evacuation has also come under fire, with reports that the number of evacuees grew well after the waters receded. The Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters also has been accused of racking up excessive food and hotel bills, as well as hiring relatives to act as co-ordinators while overseeing the evacuees.
The organization is being audited by Ottawa and has said it no longer wants to be responsible for long-term evacuees. The federal and provincial governments have asked the Red Cross to take over instead.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said there is no cap on evacuation costs.
“That’s something we all have to stay tuned to. Obviously I can’t give you a figure as to what it’s going to cost,” he said. “The bottom line is the health and safety of the people who live in the communities. We have to make sure that the proper work is done to ensure that their health and safety is taken care of.”
Robinson said he would like to see people settled permanently within the year and has four negotiation tables set up with the affected First Nation groups. A large number of evacuees are from the Lake St. Martin reserve — a community on the shores of Lake Manitoba that was virtually destroyed by high water.
The provincial government spent millions on fully furnished homes at a former radar base near the Lake St. Martin reserve, but only a handful of families agreed to move. The province has now purchased some land close to the flooded reserve which is poised to become the community’s new home.
Robinson said the sooner people are able to return to their communities, the better.
“If you or I were dislocated from our home, our community, what we’re most accustomed to, our traditional livelihood … we’d be awfully frustrated as well,” he said. “I can sympathize with the people who have had to leave their homes under those circumstances.”