Firefighters rescued Paul Graveline’s mother from her home during floods two years ago in the Constance Bay area northwest of Ottawa.
He moved up the street to her house last September after she died. Now, floodwaters are back, swamping properties, washing out roads, forcing evacuations and provoking the city to declare a state of emergency and call in the military, as thousands of volunteers rush to lend a hand.
This time, he isn’t sure he can swallow the bill when the damage is calculated. He set up two large pumps in the crawlspace and hoped that with sandbags, he’d be able to stay on top of the rising Ottawa River.
The problem is that water was seeping up through the ground, he said. “People don’t realize that. There’s 40 feet of sand here. That water comes up long before the river breaches its banks.”
Graveline said he moved into his mother’s house with the idea that the 2017 flood was a crisis that would come “once in 100 years.”
“But I think with the climate changing, etcetera, people aren’t buying into that" 100-year timeframe any longer, he said.
“There’s something going on.”
Climate change is increasing risks of inland and urban flooding in Canada, according to peer-reviewed government scientific research. Adaptation experts say flooding is the primary cost to Canada right now relative to climate-driven extreme weather risk.
Residents of Ottawa’s west side are keenly aware of extreme weather. The 2017 floods and a tornado that hit the area last year are still on everyone’s minds. Damage to homes and structures is still highly visible.
Graveline’s phrase — “something’s going on” — and climate change also appeared to be on Ontario Premier Doug Ford's mind, although the premier didn't actually say the phrase himself.
When a reporter asked if he thought climate change played a role in the flooding, Ford said “I’m a strong believer in that."
“Obviously you can see it...it’s just as simple as when we went to school. Snow used to be that high,” he said, gesturing with his hand. “Where’s the snow now? So, something’s going on, and we have to be conscious of it.”
The premier was in town to get briefed on the flood zones after Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson notified the Ontario government of the city’s emergency and asked for financial assistance and more resources.
Asked whether he would take actions similar to the New Brunswick government, which has been contemplating taking a harder approach to push people to relocate their homes away from flood zones, Ford seemed to acknowledge that climate change was becoming the new normal.
“These folks can’t go through this every single year. I think it was 2017 that it happened. They say it’s 100-year storms, well, it’s a few years later and we’re back in the same boat,” he said.
Ford arrived in Ottawa the same week it was revealed his government is cutting funding for flood management programs at Ontario's conservation authorities in half.
On Friday, standing next to flooded households, the premier appealed to fiscal responsibility to explain cutting funding for flood management.
“We have a $15 billion deficit, and we're being very modest, we're being responsible and thoughtful in our budget," he said.
"At the end of the day these folks need our support. We're not looking at dollars and cents, we're looking at human beings and their lives."
Ford was briefed at the Constance and Buckham's Bay Community Centre, which was turned in a few days from a sandbagging operation into a bustling command-styled centre where military, first responders and other officials gathered to forge a plan for the swamped residents.
The City of Ottawa is running the operation with Ottawa Volunteer Search and Rescue, according to West Carleton Disaster Relief vice-president Angela Bernhardt. Other organizations like Team Rubicon Canada and her own are providing support and first-hand knowledge of the 2017 floods.
Crews are going home to home, disconnecting hydro at homes at risk of flooding and seeing if people need help evacuating. Many homes along Bayview Drive, one of the hardest-hit areas, were already partially submerged and residents were busy sandbagging and setting up pumps Friday morning.
Speaking to media along Bayview Drive, the premier thanked the military and first responders for their work and reiterated that he had told Mayor Watson that “we’re going to be there for him. Similar to the tornado.”
Ford said he came to Ottawa because “it’s one thing to see it on the cameras, it’s another thing when you talk to the people face to face. It just rips your heart out.”
West Carleton Disaster Relief was created in the aftermath of the tornado, said Bernhardt, who is also a member of the Constance and Buckham's Bay Community Association.
Bernhardt said military operations had taken over sandbagging in the most needed areas as of Friday morning. In 2017, more than 300 houses were affected in West Carleton. This year, flooding was expected to reach a foot and a half higher, she said.
“We can’t even fathom how many homeowners that will affect” this year, said Bernhardt.
The centre had roughly 200 volunteers on Thursday, and over 1,000 last weekend. Each day brings between 30 and 100 people on average, she said. Starting Friday, school groups were lending a hand, as well as the Ottawa 67's hockey team.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Kanata-Carleton member of Parliament Karen McCrimmon headed to the area to help out. Alternate sandbagging stations were in several locations, for example in Fitzroy Harbour, MacLaren's Landing and Willola Beach.
Volunteers can register to help at the Royal Canadian Legion at 377 Albirch Road and the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum at 2940 Old Montreal Road 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., Friday until Sunday.
Volunteers must be at least 12 years old and will need to sign a waiver. Volunteers under 18 years old must have a guardian.
Bernhardt said West Carleton Disaster Relief is not accepting donations and not looking for funding or perishable food like sandwiches, but snacks and sandbagging help is welcomed.
“This is beyond any organization’s capabilities. This has the potential to be, quite frankly, catastrophic,” she said. “It is very serious.”
The military is sandbagging in Constance Bay on a priority basis, said Bernhardt.
Back on Bayview Drive, Julie Maheral was helping to sandbag at her family’s home and waiting for the troops to drive by. She said firefighters had come to see if they needed evacuation help.
“We need manpower, we do. Everybody needs manpower,” she said. “We’re worried about getting too cold and wet.”
Maheral said she lived up the road and the family was trying to save the house. Her mom also lived in the area, and had put up a “please help” sign on her mailbox, she said.
“I just don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to do. We really don’t."