Quebec flooding: Exhaustion, frustration among Ste-Marthe residents

STE-MARTHE-SUR-LE-LAC, Que. Darlene Ratelle says it feels like she’s trapped in a nightmare.

Her mobile home is submerged, her husband — who has multiple sclerosis — is in long-term care, and even when the floodwater recedes, she probably won’t be able to sleep in her own bed for months.

“If this is a bad dream, I’m anxious to wake up,” said Ratelle. “I don’t know if my home is a total loss, my partner can’t help me and I’m probably going to have to start all over. Which isn’t easy at my age.”

Like dozens of her neighbours in the trailer park, Ratelle waited in line Tuesday morning until police could ferry her home to pick up a few personal effects.

“I’ve got five minutes, so I’ll grab the most important documents and get out,” said Ratelle, who is living with friends for now. “It’s exhausting. Maybe my luck will turn and I’ll win the lottery.”

Following Saturday’s dike breach in Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac , which sent water gushing into 2,500 homes, first responders have largely contained the damage. From Monday, the military and city wrapped up nearly 36 hours of continuous work to build two emergency flood walls in the town.

But people living in the low-lying trailer park are not protected by either structure. What’s worse, Ratelle says, is that the town appears to have been aware the dike needed major repairs as early as 10 years ago.

On Tuesday, Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault confirmed reports that the town had been aware of damage to the dike since 2009. Mayor Sonia Paulus had put in a request for a study and modernization of Ste-Marthe’s 3.5 kilometres of dikes in 2015, but the work was only set to begin next fall.

Ratelle said the town acted negligently and that she’s willing to join a class-action lawsuit.

“I’m insured for $10,000 against rising water,” she said. “But does it even apply here, and would they pay out? I don’t know — the contract isn’t clear on that. And even if they pay out, $10,000 won’t go far.”

Danielle Fortin’s house is also under water, but she can’t bring herself to think about lawsuits or repair costs.

“It’s just material possessions — no one is dead,” said Fortin, who was boarding a dinghy to her home. “It could have happened in the middle of the night, and then God only knows how bad it would have been.”

Fortin has arranged to stay in an apartment that her friend usually rents out to travellers. She can live there, free of charge, until mid-June.

“After that we’ll probably have to find an apartment, because we won’t be back here for months,” she said. “I spoke to my insurance provider, and they told me to file a claim. But I live in a flood zone. No insurance covers that.”

Lyne Gervais, who moved to Ste-Marthe last year, says she planned on retiring in the trailer park. She’s not sure if that’s possible anymore.

“I’m frustrated, very frustrated with the city. They knew about this for 10 years and did nothing,” Gervais said. “Insurance won’t cover an act of God, but this is no act of God. It’s human error. The dike failed.”

Gervais said she would strongly consider joining a class-action lawsuit against the town.

People around the park ran the gamut of emotions Tuesday; some shared dark humour, interspersed with bouts of crying. Others simply looked exhausted.

By late afternoon, most of the thousands of residents whose homes remain flooded will have been allowed back for a few minutes. Some, whose homes were merely evacuated as a precaution, were allowed back on Monday night.

After visiting their homes, people stepped off the police rafts with little more than a few garbage bags full of clothing. Some wept at the site of the damage.

Michel Labelle worked for Ste-Marthe more than 40 years ago, when it was a cottage town of just a few thousand.

“Before they built the dikes in ‘76, flooding was a yearly occurrence,” said Labelle. “I used to take the chief of police on my tractor and we’d pick up the schoolchildren and drive them through the flood zone to their bus stop.

“The dikes changed this city — made it much more livable.”

Hydro-Québec crews are restoring power to the houses untouched by the floods while avoiding those still under water.

No respite from flood threat for thousands in 3 provinces

More Canadian soldiers are helping in the battle to sandbag homes against the still-rising floodwaters in central and eastern Canada than are deployed overseas, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says, though in a few places the water is slowly beginning to recede.

States of emergency have been declared in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick as waters reach or surpass historic flood levels reached, in some cases, just two years ago.

Thousands of people have been forced from their homes, including 9,500 in Quebec – two-thirds of them in Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, west of Montreal, after fleeing water from the Lake of Two Mountains that burst through a natural dike Saturday – and more are being urged to leave before water cuts them off from help.

The military has helped build one new dike in Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac and is almost finished a second, said Quebec Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault, though she had no answer about why the dike in the bedroom community failed.

The mammoth military response now stands at 2,000 soldiers in flood-ravaged regions that have requested help, compared to about 1,600 deployed overseas. Sajjan said Monday that more could be sent if cities that have declared states of emergency ask for additional troops.

“We don’t have any limit. It’s all based on the situation. If more are needed, we will always make more troops available,” Sajjan told reporters near Saint John, N.B.

The military’s orders have been to protect property, but Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Monday afternoon that he wants the troops to stay in the province once the waters subside to help remove the sandbags, which have to be carefully disposed of after being exposed to potentially contaminated water.

“Someone needs to remove them and clean up,” Legault told reporters on a visit to the flood zone in Maskinonge, about 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal. “It’s not exactly in the job description of the army, but we are trying to insist to have the army there for clean-up operations and we are waiting for an answer from Ottawa.”

A change in orders would require negotiations among the municipal, provincial and federal governments. Municipal officials in Ottawa didn’t expect to be near clean-up mode until the Victoria Day long weekend, and planning for cleanup hasn’t yet included talk about asking the military for more help.

“We’re looking at this day-to-day,” said Col. Jason Adair, whose brigade is spread from the east to west edges of the national capital. “Our mandate is crystal clear and that is to provide sandbagging, or sandbags at the right place and the right time … and anything beyond that, we’re just not there right now.”

An estimated million sandbags are standing between the bloated Ottawa River and residences and businesses in the capital. More are in place in Gatineau, Que., on the river’s opposite bank. Even so, whole riverfront neighbourhoods are flooded.

The Ottawa River isn’t expected to peak until mid-week, after rising by another 50 cm. What happens after that, as in other regions, depends on the weather. Forecasts call for between 35 and 50 mm of rain toward the end of the week and depending on where it falls – the Ottawa River drains about 140,000 square kilometres of eastern Ontario and western Quebec – and how long the river takes to recede, there could be a second flood peak.

Ontario’s cottage country is also bracing for rain after flooding prompted states of emergency in Bracebridge, Muskoka Lakes, Huntsville and Minden Hills.

In New Brunswick, floodwaters along the Saint John River slowly receded Monday, though more than 80 roads cross the province remain underwater and closed, including a major section of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Provincial officials urged patience from affected communities, warning it will take time before recovery and cleanup begin.

Quebec’s short-term weather forecast has no serious rain expected across the province until Wednesday. But many parts of Quebec are likewise expected to remain flooded for some time.

The record flooding is expected to push losses for homeowners from extreme weather to more than $1 billion this year – in all of 2018 the figure was close to $2 billion – which has led governments to look at “alternative solutions in order to shield the taxpayer from the continued bailouts,” said Craig Stewart, vice-president of federal affairs with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

Federal, provincial and territorial emergency-management ministers appear to be most interested in a British model that would see the people living in high-risk flood areas moved out of harm’s way and a public insurance program for the remainder of homes.

Quebec is offering $200,000 to people with deep damage to their homes to move out of flood zones, an idea that the federal Liberals say they’ll also consider, along with spending on infrastructure to mitigate the effects of floods and extreme weather from climate change.

Premier Legault reiterated his call for people to “seriously consider” the offer.

– With files from Giuseppe Valiante in Montreal and Kevin Bissett in Saint John

How does Canada mitigate the impact of flooding?

The director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University says provinces need to do more to mitigate the impact of flooding, by forcing residents to make tough decisions.

“We need to take a medium-term view, work with the communities and get people out of flood-prone areas,” says Dr. Kevin Quigley.

But how can provinces encourage people to get out of certain areas that are becoming more and more accustomed to devastating flooding?

New Brunswick is one of the provinces dealing with a massive deluge of water. Premier Blaine Higgs told a press conference Tuesday that there needs to be a deeper look into the issue.

“We’ve got to look seriously at the impacts that we’re seeing with changing weather conditions and how we evaluate building sites, and how we encourage people to actually relocate.”

François Legault, Quebec’s premier, announced an accumulative compensation plan capped at $100,000 for residents in that province, and then a form of buyout plan.

“It means if people ask for some money in the next three, five, ten years, there will be an accumulative amount of $100,000,” Legault told reporters Tuesday. “When the accumulative amount will be reached, then we’ll offer a maximum of $200,000 to move to another house.”

Quigley says a buyout incentive is a good idea, but it needs a lot of thought and community consultation.

“You could buy a lot of properties that are going to sit empty and going to be vulnerabilities and environmental problems and health and safety problems in other ways for the government, they own a bunch of properties,” he said.

Quigley added that better urban planning is needed along with “building robust infrastructure.”

While acknowledging many people have long-enjoyed living on the water, the risks are increasing with the impact of climate change, according to Quigley.

Last year the New Brunswick Liberal Party required some property owners to prove they took steps to help mitigate flood risks from impacting their homes.

Higgs said the idea of permits should be looked at, but nothing is finalized.

“We have to work with that with individuals because they’re going to have trouble getting insurance,” he said. “We have to plan a different profile going forward.”

Quigley says more and more data is becoming available about flooding impacts, meaning insurance policies can be better implemented but need to be regulated by the government.

“If we know it’s predictable enough, then we can ask people to pay for the real cost of the property that they’re occupying,” he says.

Are spring floods the disturbing new normal?

The excerpted article was written by James Bagnall

Two years ago, homeowners in the Ottawa could comfort themselves that record floods were a freak anomaly. Rainfall in the Ottawa River basin that April — all 159 millimetres of it —was the highest it had been in 125 years according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board.

That, combined with a significant snow melt, produced enough river water to flood thousands of homes in Quebec and more than 500 residences in Ottawa.

Now, here we are again, with flood waters approaching and, in some areas exceeding, the levels of 2017.  And this, a scant seven months after a series of tornadoes ripped through the capital region.

Is extreme weather the new normal?

One way to try to answer this is to look at things through the eyes of insurers — the companies that must pay for part of the damage done.

There’s little question catastrophic events are on the rise around the world. SwissRe — a top insurer — estimates insurance firms paid out an average of $71 billion U.S. in claims each year over the past decade. These resulted from hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fires and other natural and man-made disasters.  That’s nearly 40-per-cent higher in inflation adjusted terms from the previous decade.

In Canada, the escalation in claims has been even more dramatic. From 2009 to 2018, Canadian insurers paid out an average of $1.9 billion annually compared to just $429 million in the previous decade. These numbers, provided by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, have also been adjusted for inflation.

Nationally, claims in the most recent decade were torqued by a handful of catastrophes — including the 2016 fire at Fort McMurray, the 2013 floods in southern Alberta and a 2011 fire that devastated Slave Lake, Alberta.

The weather disaster that would have the biggest impact on insurance policies through the country was the southern Alberta flood — which saw more than 75,000 flee their homes in Calgary alone.

“That catastrophe changed the Canadian psyche,” said Peter Karageorgos, the IBC’s director of consumer & industry relations. “People realized that water damage can happen anywhere.”

Until 2013, insurance policies were actually a little unclear about whether damage caused by water moving over land was covered. Insurance firms decided they would make good the Alberta claims — some $1.7 billion worth — but would develop contract language making it clear exactly what insurers would pay for. There followed a multi-year exercise in mapping out the country’s flood plains in great detail.

The majority of the country’s dozens of insurance firms now offer over land flood insurance. Nevertheless, the uptake from homeowners has been modest — still just one in three policy holders have opted in.

The percentage covered was even lower two years ago when the Ottawa River crested, affecting 1,400 homes on the Gatineau side and 500 in Ottawa, mainly in West Carleton.

That’s likely why the amounts paid out to homeowners tended to be relatively modest.  For instance Aviva and Desjardins — two of the country’s largest private insurers — each paid out about $4 million to settle 413 and 255 claims respectively, related to floods in the national capital region in the spring of 2017. That represents an average of about $12,000 per claim.

This doesn’t include government assistance, damages not covered by insurance and, perhaps most of all, the staggering amount of volunteer effort aimed at blunting the impact of the waters.

While it may be too early to tell, homeowners and volunteers appear to have thwarted at least some of the flooding this year through prodigious effort.

Will this year’s water levels induce a fundamental shift in how people view the Ottawa River? Undoubtedly, yes. The amount of rainfall in April in each of the last three years has averaged 124 millimetres in Ottawa according to Environment Canada, and that’s without the amounts expected in the coming week. That’s double the average in April recorded in each of the previous five years — and it’s starting to feel like a permanent feature of the capital’s spring.

Will it be enough to prompt people to move off flood plains? Undoubtedly some will, but many others will stay put.

Those with a long history in the region may recall that twice before the Ottawa River very nearly reached the peak of 43 metres achieved in 2017 (and likely surpassed this year). That was in 1974 and 1976 — triggering two floods in a three-year period.

It would be many more years before a bad combination of rain, snow pack and temperatures transformed the river into a torrent. With any luck, it could take years more again.

However, in light of the increased intensity of storms generally over the past decade, homeowners would be smart not to count on it.

The Telegram

Don’t expect a bailout if you build in a flood zone

The excerpted article was written by  | Global News BC

As the winter snowpack melts and fears of spring flooding rise, Canada’s public safety minister Ralph Goodale has a “tough message” for municipalities, homeowners and businesses: build in a flood zone and you could be on your own.

“At some point, you’re going to have to say if people ignore the knowledge base and deliberately rebuild in danger zones, they are going to have to assume their own responsibility for the cost burden,” Goodale said Thursday.

Goodale made the comments in Ottawa when asked by Global News if there’s anything the federal government can do to stop municipalities from building in areas at high risk of flooding.

“After it’s happened once and then twice, and then three times, at some point the taxpayer’s patience runs out,” he said. “So there’s that clear message that has to be delivered.”

And according to Goodale, it’s municipalities that need to heed this message most.

“The right zoning decisions need to be taken,” Goodale said.

“That takes a good deal of local political courage because you’re often talking about some of the most attractive places in which to build,” he said.

“So that’s a bit of a tough message, but you can’t repeatedly go back to the taxpayer and say; oh, it happened again.”

‘Bold decisions’ to deal with flooding

While much of the funding for disaster relief and emergency management comes from the federal government, the decision to build in areas prone to flooding is “largely within the jurisdiction of provinces and municipalities,” Goodale said.

Whether to rebuild in these areas after flooding is also up to municipalities, and according to Goodale, this “very serious issue” is something communities across Canada will increasingly have to deal with as climate change takes hold and as the threat of flooding grows.

Goodale points to High River, Alta., which in June 2013 experienced devastating flooding with billions of dollars in damage, as an example of the type of decision making that’s needed to protect homes — and by extension, government finances — from the catastrophic effects caused by flooding.

According to Goodale, the community made the tough decision not to rebuild in the most high-risk areas after the 2013 floods.

“Other municipalities have not taken those bold decisions,” he said.

In addition to making “bold decisions,” Goodale said communities across Canada are benefiting from federal infrastructure spending targeted at flood relief. And while the Liberals have committed up to $2 billion to such programs, Goodale admits far more will be needed in the future.

Because, Goodale said, “the size of this problem is just very, very large.”

Billions in difficult or impossible-to-insure properties

So how big is the problem of homes and other properties built in areas prone to flooding?

According to a 2016 Parliamentary Budget Office report, flooding caused $12.5 billion in damages in Canada between 2005 and 2014 — by far the biggest cause of disaster relief spending.

The federal government’s share of paying for these disasters was nearly $3.5 billion.

But as the feds seek to get out of the business of flood relief, the notion that this level of funding will exist in the future is far from certain.

According to Craig Stewart, head of federal affairs with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the percentage of Canadian properties that are either difficult or impossible to insure because of risks from flooding is between 10 and 15 per cent. Stewart says the value of these properties is easily in the billions.

Like Goodale, he believes communities should be encouraged not to build or rebuild in areas known to be at high risk of flooding. He also thinks government bailouts for flood victims could soon be a thing of the past.

“Municipalities have been incented to build in flood planes in the past due to the tax revenue that such attractive locations afford,” Stewart said. “Now it’s all too clear what the consequences of those decisions are.”

“We believe municipalities should follow the lead of High River and revert high-risk land either to wetlands or to park areas, where it can still enjoy appropriate use, but where these people won’t be losing their possessions and homes when the next flood comes,” he said.

Stewart said Canada’s insurance industry has been working with federal and provincial governments — including conversations with Goodale’s office — on ways to provide insurance to high-risk properties. This could include a model similar to that in the United Kingdom where private insurers and governments work together to create a special class of government-backed insurance plans, he said.

Homeowners Adrift Assessing Flood Insurance

University of Waterloo study shows Canadians have spotty access to good information about the risks

Excerpreted article was written BY VERONICA REINER

Many of us don’t know the extent of our flood insurance coverage until after a claim’s in progress. But even for those interested in learning more about the risks, good information is hard to come by in Canada, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

The study examined available information for more than 300 communities across Canada that are classified as being high-risk for flooding, noting many homeowners are essentially on their own in figuring out the risks and what kind of coverage is needed.

Researchers found that 62 per cent of available maps did not meet the basic criteria for communicating flood risk information to the public. Professor of political science Daniel Henstra, who helped conduct the research, said this could potentially cost homeowners tens-of-thousands of dollars.

“Without that information, [people] are unlikely to be buying flood insurance or to be implementing any flood protection measures,” said Henstra.

“If you think about that, when there’s a flood, disaster assistance programs will pay some of the cost of that, but we found in most cases, in the average home, you’re looking at $40,000-$50,000 out of pocket even after disaster assistance. So if there’s no insurance, people could easily be defaulting on their mortgages. A flood like this could really ruin somebody.”

There are individual measures you can take to protect yourself from damages, such as buying the appropriate insurance, but good information isn’t always easy to come by, the study suggests.

While most incidents occur during snowmelt and spring rains, flooding can happen at any time of the year. For example, there was significant flooding in Elmira in June 2017 during the warmer summer months, in that case due to heavy rainfall in the northern part of the Grand River system.

The knowledge gap is one place insurance companies can be of assistance, especially as the industry adjusts to the implication of climate change and the threat of more intense storms and weather-related damage.

Those at the brokerage level are on the front lines of increased claims and requests for information about coverage.

That’s certainly been the experience of  Steve Wagler, director of sales at Josslin Insurance, who said he sees an uptick in activity after storms such as the one in Elmira.

“Everybody needs to be considering what type of water coverage they have,” said Wagler. “That’s part of what we do as brokers, provide advice – it’s not just about buying the coverage, it’s about understanding what you have, and what you may need and then when you need to use it.”

He also recommends taking a closer look at the fine print associated with flood risk coverage – sometimes it may not cover the full amount, or even come close.

“Before you automatically renew your policy, you should take a look at some of the detail,” said Wagler. “Because a lot of times, companies will put sub-limits down. You may think you have it, but some companies may limit you to $10,000 of coverage.

“If you have serious water damage in your basement, on average, it costs just over $40,000 to repair a basement. So $10,000 wouldn’t even really cover the cleanup – people need to pay attention to it.”

Basement flooding is a significant problem area in most incidents. There is a range of different flood insurance including overland water protection, which protects when water from rivers, streams or other bodies of water flows onto dry land. Other types of coverage offered are in the case of a burst pipe, groundwater coverage, or for a sewer backup. Certain insurance companies sell all kinds of coverage in one package.

When assessing flood risk, the insurance industry looks at several factors.

“Our industry looks at it on a couple of different levels; mainly they’ll look at mapping and the vicinity to a body of water,” said Wagler. “If you’re within 100 metres of a stream, or any kind of waterway, you’re likely to have difficulty buying a product.

“Prior loss history and vicinity to water is going to determine whether you can buy it or not.”

In the meantime, more needs to be done about the lack of flood risk information in the first place, said Henstra, adding that municipal, provincial and federal governments all have a shared responsibility to provide this information.

“Whether they choose to act on the information is different, but right now, it’s not even knowable,” said Henstra. “So it’s really kind of unfair to expect property owners to be buying insurance to protect themselves when they don’t even know if they’re at risk.”

The study found that other countries Austria, Belgium, Germany, France, the U.K., all have access to better quality flood-risk information. For example in the U.K., a homeowner can get a detailed flood risk report that includes details such as times of year to expect flooding, measures to prevent it, and the type of flooding you’re vulnerable to, just by typing in the users postal code.

“And really – it’s perplexing why we don’t have these maps. It’s not really an insurmountable challenge. In Canada, we’ve got the expertise, technology, data; it’s all there,” said Henstra. “I guess we just haven’t seen the leadership yet that’s required to get a new mapping effort off the ground.”

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