CANADA

A flood's aftermath

Five months on, the Saguenay is still reeling

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 16 1996
CANADA

A flood's aftermath

Five months on, the Saguenay is still reeling

BRENDA BRANSWELL December 16 1996

A flood's aftermath

Five months on, the Saguenay is still reeling

BRENDA BRANSWELL

Accès strictement interdit. Access strictly forbidden— hardly the sort of sign to entice customers. For months, that stern warning, posted on a makeshift safety fence, stood near the entrance to 70-year-old Jean-Eudes Tremblay’s shoe store. His family had operated their Chicoutimi shop without incident for three generations. Then, in July, the rain-swollen Chicoutimi River spilled its banks, devastating parts of the city of 63,000 people. Tremblay’s shop was in the hardest-hit area; nowJ.-X. Tremblay et Fils is one of the few businesses on the street still operating. Photographs of the damage caused by the flood, displayed in his window, seem superfluous. Reminders of the river’s destructive power, including wrecked buildings, ruined roads and empty shops, lie just down the street. Tremblay himself had 600 pairs of winter boots ruined in the flood, and estimates his losses at $35,000. But, he says, “We’re not going to give up and die—we will continue.”

The safety fence by Tremblay’s store—and the sign—have now been taken down. But as winter settles in on the Saguenay, five months after the deluge, residents of Chicoutimi and other hard-hit towns are still reeling from one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike Canada. The raging waters killed seven people and drove about 16,000 from their homes, and many continue to live in the limbo of temporary accommodations. Parts of the infrastructure remain in ruins—and rebuilding is a slow and daunting process. Officials in the region, 300 km northeast of Quebec City, estimate that getting it back to normal will take at least two years. For some residents, things are moving too slowly. Tremblay says he had to push city hall to reinstall street lights in front of his store in November. Before that, he says, it was “dark like a forest.” And, he claims, the slow administrative response to the flood constitutes a “second disaster.”

So far, about half the flood victims have received compensation—and Quebec officials defend their record. “I think this aid is fast,

given the complexity of the damage,” says Marc Lavallée, a spokesman for Quebec’s public security ministry In fact, the reckoning for the flooding is now estimated at more than $700 million, much of it not covered by private insurers, who consider flood damage an act of God. And Lavallée acknowledges that settling claims—Ottawa expects to pay 80 per cent of an estimated $300 million in damages eligible for government aid, with Quebec picking up the rest—is a complicated process that could take years to complete. One problem is determining the value of

houses destroyed by the flood. Desneiges Otis and her husband Michel Simard are among those contesting the compensation they received for their home in Boisleau, a small village 40 km east of Chicoutimi. After the flood wrecked it, they spent three weeks at the Bagotville military base. Then, until early November, they lived at a summer cottage loaned to them by the village of Boisleau. Now the couple has settled into a new, $120,000 two-storey house—but they are not celebrating. They received $59,000, less than half the insured value of their wrecked home—forcing them to dig into their retirement savings. “We’re starting over,” says Otis, a 48-year-old secretary. “Our old house was paid for—our retirement was already prepared.”

Others have had better luck. Céline Grenon’s apartment in La Baie, just outside Chicoutimi, was destroyed by the flood. After finding shelter at the military base, then living with her sister, Grenon, 48, moved into a new, municipally subsidized townhouse in October. “We received a lot of financial help,” says Grenon, sitting at her new kitchen table. Her furnishings— the couch with the floral pattern, the television set, even the angels dangling from a mobile (“to protect me,” she says), are all freshly bought with $15,000 in government aid. Even so, Grenon, like others, finds the adjustment difficult. The abrupt change, she wistfully notes, is “difficult to get used to.”

Still, the Saguenay’s hardships brought out the best in Canadians, who responded with an outpouring of financial aid. The result: a $27-million emergency relief fund that the Canadian Red S Cross is now distributing £ through a voucher system that ^ allows recipients to buy clothes, I household supplies and other “ items. At the time of the disaster, some federalists privately expressed hope that the response might persuade people in the Saguenay— traditionally the separatist heartland of Quebec—to re-examine their political beliefs. But some in the region dismiss that notion. The aid, says Michel Bouchard, a spokesperson for the city of La Baie, “was seen as an act of generosity. People said, ‘If that ever happens elsewhere, in Quebec we hope to do the same thing.’ ”

Some charitable acts may have helped bridge cultural, if not political, divides. Warren Valley, 47, a unilingual anglophone water treatment specialist from Ottawa, travelled

to the Saguenay in October at his own expense to help residents rebuild. “I’m glad I came,” Valley said, sheltering from the winter chill inside the Boisleau home of Pierre Gingras and Johanne Hébert. Communication, Hébert acknowledged, was difficult— she is the only villager to speak any English. But, said Gingras, who hammered alongside Valley as they rebuilt a backyard shed: “It’s quite something that an Ontarian would come to a region that’s completely francophone to give his help.”

Valley’s sojourn—he recently returned to his Ottawa home—may yet find a place in the region’s flood mythology.

Other events already have. In La Baie, store owner Kelley Claveau passed out photographs of a statue of the Sacred Heart. As the waters rose, he placed the likeness of Jesus in front of his property. It remains, he says, his only explanation for how floodwaters bypassed his store and adjacent home while sweeping away neighboring buildings. Then there are the stories of personal property recovered from the rampaging waters. In Ste-Rose-du-Nord, for instance, someone found a laminated family photograph, recognized the people and called them—48 km away in Chicoutimi. There were also the rats of La Baie, scurrying out of the swamped sewers. “People told us they were afraid to go out at night,” says François Morneau, a spokesman for the provincial government’s reconstruction office.

In the weeks following the disaster, some residents expressed the hope that the rebuilding effort might boost the region’s ail-

The region may face further flooding

ing economy. That has not been the case. While noting that construction temporarily increases employment, Bouchard of La Baie says the Saguenay “isn’t getting wealthier— what we’re doing is simply replacing what we lost.” Still, the flood has presented some marketing openings. Solange Martin of Chicoutimi says that, beginning in August, tour buses began passing by her home several times a day, carrying the curious to view the damage. Hearing the knock of opportunity, Martin hung photographs of the disaster on her balcony and sold them to tourists. Business, she reports, was “medium.” On a recent brisk winter day, Martin was still clipping pictures to her porch—although she plans to call it quits for now. “If there’s a demand next summer,” she says, “we’ll certainly take it up again.” Could some of the damage have been averted? A government-appointed commission is now examining the possible role of the area’s vast network of dams and dikes in the disaster, and is expected to complete its report for Jan. 15. Meanwhile, the risk of further flooding remains. The disaster changed the course of some rivers, and has increased the possibility of ice jams. “They’re no longer the same rivers,” says Morneau. “We don’t know what will happen.” Residents, meanwhile, forge ahead with their lives. “We have to have strength of character,” Tremblay chuckles in his shoe store. “Because we have every reason to give up.” It is a fortitude many in the Saguenay share—and it is something they will need on the long road back to recovery. □