Half a year after massive floods turned residential streets in southwestern Quebec and eastern Ontario into waterways, hundreds still have not returned home.
On the front lawns that line Rue des Maçons, as on other streets in the Montreal suburb of Pierrefonds-Roxboro, signs with the word "sinistre" rival those advertising "à vendre" or "à louer." While they may be as elaborate as those of realtors, these signs do not offer homes for sale or rent. Instead, they indicate a home has been damaged and is in need of the services of Montreal’s myriad new disaster repair companies.
Still other homes and businesses in this neighbourhood and elsewhere may simply never be rebuilt or reopened because they are so severely damaged.
This is the unfinished story of the floods that rocked central Canada in May, 2017: after helpful military members cleared out, after politicians talked about revising flood plans, some residents and homeowners are still on hold. They are still waiting to find out if they can rebuild, if they can go home, if their politicians have concrete plans for helping them in the future.
And as winter approaches, another question: what will happen next spring?
Floods not likely to be outliers
The 2017 floods were tame compared to some, in terms of visual drama. No homes were smashed to pieces by torrents or swept from their foundations by the deluge, no photos were dramatic enough to go viral, there was no looting of any kind.
But that is little, if any, comfort now to those whose homes were ruined last spring.
For residents of Montreal, particularly the 1,100 or so who have had their homes reclassified by municipal authorities as requiring major repairs, questions remain as to why so little aid arrived during the week in which the Rivière des Prairies overflowed its banks and reached deep into the city’s northwestern suburbs.
At the time of this writing, the borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro — one particularly hard-hit Montreal suburb — confirms at least one-hundred residents are still living in hotels. Hundreds others are living with relatives, friends or neighbours.
While the flood didn’t claim many lives it did leave thousands temporarily homeless and resulted in the loss of hundreds of homes and more than a few businesses. Though the vast majority of those affected were concentrated in specific sections of Greater Montreal, hundreds of communities and homeowners in the Ottawa River watershed were also hit.
Flood water damage can be difficult to spot; even a small amount of water can cause toxic mold, which can in turn lead to an entire home being condemned. Even if the force of infiltration isn’t strong enough to cause physical damage to foundations or walls, the mere presence of floodwater for more than a few hours can require a home's interior to be completely gutted before it is habitable again.
According to René Leblanc, a former city councillor, retired insurance agent and advocate for flood victims, whether a home was condemned by inspectors in some cases had more to do with whether the homeowner was present and willing to argue with inspectors from the city’s fire department when they arrived.
Spring flooding isn’t unusual on the Rivière des Prairies but it is rarely more than a few centimetres and typically only lasts a few weeks. Most of Pierrefonds’ 68,000 residents do not own riverside properties and live on higher ground. For them, the risk of flooding is supposed to be a once-in-a-century concern. Few have flood insurance.
From a meteorological perspective, the flood was blamed on atypically high levels of precipitation stretching back to a blizzard in mid-March.
Though it may have been an ‘act of God’ as far as insurers are concerned, it’s a scientific fact that rising temperatures intensify the water cycle, increasing evaporation, which in turn results in more storms and greater precipitation.
This spring, members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government acknowledged patterns of extreme weather are changing alongside a changing climate.
That means memories of the spring floods and how communities pulled together in washed-out streets don't just linger or mark resilience. They highlight areas of emergency and non-emergency response that need to be addressed.
Anatomy of a community's response to the flood
It would have made for a classic Canadiana photograph were it not for the fact that it happened at a residential intersection in Montreal.
Two healthy young men paddled a bright red canoe, modern-day Voyageurs packing not pelts but makeshift sandbags: plastic-wrapped peat moss and sacks of gravel. They inched their way along the street they grew up on, using oars to poke down to the pavement below, mindful not to tip over.
“How deep?” shouted one of their neighbours gathered near the flood line half a block away.
They dipped their oars to estimate: a foot? A foot and a half?
Nearby, a few people sprang into action, maneuvering a twisting hose into a drain on higher ground; a pump had been switched on prematurely. Even here up on ‘dry land’ the storm drains overflowed. Water pushed gently up Rue des Maçons in Pierrefonds, a modest middle-class commuter suburb in the northwest corner of Montreal Island.
It had happened overnight, an instant river in a matter of hours. By the afternoon of May 7, 2017, people were beginning to leave their homes, though no official evacuation order had been given. Sandbags outlining the edges of some properties had proven inadequate.
With setting sunlight breaking through the clouds and gilding the edges of rippling water, the scene was momentarily picturesque. It didn’t feel like a flood, let alone a disaster area, a fact reinforced by the lack of emergency personnel. There were no municipal employees present, no firefighters or police officers, no organized response to speak of.
The street, some 200 metres from the river’s edge, was a lake. Ducks floated past the goalposts of the nearby soccer pitch.
In an odd way, the eerie calm of the scene mirrored municipal response: by the time significant action was taken, it was already too late, and there was little to do other than wait it out.
Allegations of incompetence
Homeowners like Tom Schwalb, a retired engineer and Pierrefonds resident, found themselves struggling to save their primary asset without much assistance from local government.
“The borough’s response was completely incompetent,” Schwalb told National Observer. “The army did a great job once they got here, but they arrived too late to help most people. They arrived after the flooding was at its worst; it was reactive, not preventative. City workers would come through here but they couldn’t find the source of the flooding. I told them there’s a drainage pipe from our street that runs out to the river. They had no idea.”
In the months since, homeowners have banded together. There seems to be a new residents’ association for every flooded street, as many have discovered the battle to save their homes only really began after the floodwaters had completely receded.
Homeowners interviewed for this article generally indicated they felt ignored by politicians and vulnerable to inspectors who have the authority to condemn homes, leaving them with no real recourse. Recent demonstrations in Montreal's West Island focused on the provincial government's response, as dozens of homeowners still cannot return and are unsure whether they’ll be allowed to rebuild.
In one case, a borough mayor representing the community of Ile Bizard asked the Quebec government for lenience with the rule that any home with more than 50 per cent damage won’t receive permission for renovations. This rule has left some homes still standing but without insulation, and homeowners without clear information on whether their renovations are lawful.
Ile Bizard, adjacent to Pierrefonds, was flooding for about a week before the borough mayor of Pierrefonds called an emergency meeting.
Nonetheless, the borough was caught off guard by the flood, said Pierrefonds-Roxboro councillor Justine McIntyre. Though an emergency plan existed, she told National Observer she was not permitted to see it.
"We had an emergency centre but were told not to send people there. We had plenty of people offering to help, but no way to coordinate them," McIntyre said. "Pierrefonds-Roxboro Borough Mayor (Jim) Beis told me to stay in my district and 'keep an eye on things.’”
McIntyre, who leads the Vrais changement pour Montréal political party, is running for borough mayor against Beis in next week's city elections. The incumbent Beis is a candidate for Équipe Denis Coderre pour Montréal.
Sandbag provision was inadequate
As floodwaters made their way inland and began flooding major thoroughfares and side streets, residents up and down Rue des Maçons in Pierrefonds were told by local authorities that they weren’t considered a priority for the scant number of sandbags the borough had available, a problem compounded by the fact that a borough administrator had ordered municipal workers to destroy pallets of sandbags that were ‘taking up too much room’ at the municipal works.
Locals were told to call 311 for sandbags which either never arrived or came too late; in some cases residents were limited to just six sandbags to protect their properties. Schwalb made the mistake of calling for sandbags on Saturday May 6, and heard a recorded message indicating the borough was open for business Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Ultimately, Schwalb, like many other residents of the flood-stricken areas, got their sandbags from a local nursery, which offered them in exchange for time spent voluntarily filling sandbags for others.
Kayleigh Donovan and Travis Fraser moved into their Rue des Maçons home just five years ago.
New parents to infant Isla, they never imagined having to gut and refinish the entire main floor of their first home so soon. Nor did they imagine having to leave their new home for eight weeks.
“We were lucky we could stay with Travis’ parents… some people didn’t have friends and family to take them in and help them out. We’re very fortunate in that way,” said Donovan.
The couple did their best to be proactive by buying additional water pumps at the hardware store and following guidelines from Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, including to call 311 for sandbags. When none were delivered and she heard a local radio station's promotions team was out delivering sandbags, Donovan took to social media.
By Donovan's and Fraser's account, city trucks arrived much later in the day, half-loaded with sand and not enough sandbags to be of any use. By about 10 p.m. on the night of May 6, Donovan and Fraser decided they had no choice but to leave their home. Though the water level had been rising steadily on the west side of the street for several days, once it crested the high middle of Rue des Maçons, the homes on the east side of the street flooded within an hour, the pressure from the floodwaters blowing off garage doors at the bottom of inclined driveways.
The Insurance Board of Canada estimates damage caused by the floods in Western Quebec and Eastern Ontario cost about $223 million. The Quebec government estimates between 500 and 800 homes are now total losses in the Outaouais and Greater Montreal regions. In June, the province enacted a law that will forbid homeowners from rebuilding if their houses stand in a 20-year flood zone and suffered more than 50 per cent damage.
Though the government issued $10,000 cheques to certain qualified residents to assist with cleanup operations in the days immediately following the floods, according to René Leblanc and others on Rue des Maçons, the cost of damages far exceeded initial government assistance, in some cases running nearly as high as the total value of the house.
Hundreds of homes may never be rebuilt as they are so severely damaged. It will depend in part on how strictly the Quebec government enforces rebuilding rules. In cases where flooded homes had oil-based heaters, with fuel tanks in the basement, decontamination pushes the cost up considerably. There are still a large number of oil heated homes in this part of Montreal, which was developed between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s.
In the aftermath of the flood, borough mayor Beis promised a thorough review of the response to the flood — a "post-mortem," in his words — though according to borough councillor and mayoral candidate McIntyre, no report has been presented to the borough council nor was she ever asked to participate in it.
Montreal Mayor Coderre was criticized for pulling municipal workers off the flood’s frontline for a pizza party and photo op, though in his unique style he in turn criticized the journalists for being too negative. According to him, the response to the flood was worth celebrating: the residents of Pierrefonds were treated to a free outdoor concert featuring the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, though rain kept most at home.
The city’s response to the floods has become an important issue in the 2017 Montreal municipal elections. While incumbent borough Mayor Jim Beis has repeatedly stressed his position that "all which could be done was done," local dissatisfaction has encouraged opposition parties like Projet Montréal and Vrai Changement pour Montréal to make a big push in the suburban borough.
For his part, Beis indicated to the local CBC affiliate that the borough has been hard at work reinforcing and building new dykes, in addition to purchasing ‘industrial-sized’ sandbags and an inflatable water barrier.
Documents obtained by National Observer confirm that the borough authorized the use of funds from its budgetary surplus to spend $23,000 on sandbags and $24,000 on two inflatable water barriers from the company MegaSecur SE Inc. McIntyre said there was neither a presentation illustrating different flood prevention options, nor a bid to determine who to purchase the equipment from.
While a spokesperson for the borough confirmed that repair and reinforcement work on some dykes was ongoing and undertaken by municipal workers, the same spokesperson contradicted Beis, stating no new dykes had been built anywhere in the borough. With a maximum length of only 15 metres, it’s unclear how much protection will be offered by the two inflatable barriers.
The cost for goods and services paid for by the City of Montreal during the state of emergency totalled approximately $3.7 million by the end of May. A separate sum of $902,770 was authorized for the mayor to spend on goods and services deemed necessary before an official state of emergency was declared. Whereas funds spent during the state of emergency will be analyzed after a final report is completed, the same is not required for the pre-state of emergency funds.
According to the city, nearly $1 million was spent on sandbags, water boots and burlap sacks.
"I'm still waiting"
Six months have passed since the floodwaters receded, but there are ample signs of life not returning to normal in Pierrefonds.
A strip mall with a large grocery store remains mostly abandoned, with some merchants complaining they’ve been denied government compensation because, according to their landlord, the businesses weren’t damaged by the flood, but rather by sewage backup, which is considered an insurable risk and therefore not covered.
On Rue des Maçons, former Pierrefonds city councillor René Leblanc recently watched a neighbouring home that had stood since 1951 be reduced to a pile of rubble. So far, there are no new laws or codes which will prevent a new home from being built in its place, despite the flood risk. Leblanc gets by with some grassroots activism, having attended the rained-out free concert with other residents from his street dressed in matching t-shirts protesting both the city and the province’s response, or lack thereof, to the worst flooding in 40 years.
Determining precisely how many homes have been condemned and how many residents are still unable to return is exceptionally difficult to pin down, even six months after the floods. The Red Cross, which played an integral role in assisting flood victims throughout Quebec, only has figures dating to July, 2017. These indicate 5,371 residences were flooded, with over 4,800 households receiving emergency financial assistance and over 2,000 receiving emergency support such as temporary lodging, food and clothing.
The borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro estimates about 10 residences will have to be demolished and about 100 residents are still living in hotels, but they do not have precise information about how many people are staying with friends or family, nor how many residences are still being renovated.
Though it’s the responsibility of the provincial government to determine a home’s habitability (and what repairs must be executed in order to make it habitable once more),a spokesperson for Quebec's public security ministry indicated they do not have any detailed information on how many homes have been condemned.
One resident of 5th Avenue North has been sharing a hotel room with her husband and four children since May and said she hasn’t received any compensation from the province, nor any support from the City of Montreal or federal government. The family continues as best they can, going to work, going to school, and going to their home as often as possible to repair and renovate while waiting for municipal authorities to give them permission to return.
The family, who prefer not to be identified, are not alone in the hotel, which is near the airport and about 20 minutes away from Pierrefonds. Others from the same street are staying in the same place, though they are reluctant to speak to media as they fear their situation will only be made worse if they publicize their discontent.
Kayleigh Donovan, her husband Travis Fraser and their daughter Isla made their way back home after friends and family surprised them with a fundraising party to help them renovate their home. Fraser later attended a government information session to get a better understanding of compensation for flood victims and how the City of Montreal and the Government of Quebec would prevent flooding in the future. Instead, he discovered the meeting’s purpose was, in essence, to clarify and explain the Byzantine nature of government procedures, which in turn left most in the room more confused as to what they were to do to be properly compensated.
As for longtime Pierrefonds resident and retired engineer Tom Schwalb, who had to gut his basement in order to save his home, he is still waiting on a high-profile visitor.
“Mayor Beis said he’d come down here to meet with me personally, offer his help. That was back in May. I’m still waiting.”