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.