CANADA

FLOODWATERS ON A RAMPAGE

Torrential rain in Quebec leaves chaos in its wake

BRENDA BRANSWELL August 5 1996
CANADA

FLOODWATERS ON A RAMPAGE

Torrential rain in Quebec leaves chaos in its wake

BRENDA BRANSWELL August 5 1996

FLOODWATERS ON A RAMPAGE

CANADA

Torrential rain in Quebec leaves chaos in its wake

First, came the storms, and as much rain over two days as Quebec’s Saguenay region usually sees in a month. Then, the swollen rivers went on their rampage. When it was over, Jimmy Villeneuve’s corner of paradise looked like hell on earth. His pristine white house on the edge of

the Chicoutimi River in Laterrière, close to the city of Chicoutimi and close to the water, was his pride and joy. But the neighborhood that Villeneuve returned to visit late last week, three days after evacuating to a hotel, bore little resemblance to its former self. House after house sat in the brown water of the swollen river. Near Villeneuve’s place, a chimney stuck out of the water—all that was left of a neighbor’s home. Villeneuve’s once-manicured lawn was littered with a television set, a refrigerator and pieces of wood left behind by the rushing current. The house remained standing, but the damage is extensive. “I had tears in my eyes,” said Villeneuve, 35, when he saw the inside of his home late last week. The basement was ruined, the first floor heavily damaged, and Villeneuve estimated a repair bill between $40,000 and $60,000. Still, he added, “I’m lucky com-

10 people dead, 12,000 others forced from their homes

pared to my neighbors who lost everything.”

For the thousands of Quebecers whose homes and businesses lay in the way of the water’s onslaught, what lies ahead is the daunting challenge of rebuilding shattered lives. The flooding, the worst natural disaster on record in the province, forced almost 12,000 people from their homes. Incredibly, only 10 died, including three children—two when a mud slide engulfed their home in La Baie, just southeast of Chicoutimi, as they slept in the basement, the other along with two adults when their car fell into a washout in a highway.

With damage estimates ranging as high as $450 million, some municipalities looked as if they had also been subjected to earthquakes and tornadoes, not just floods. Environment experts warned that, because of the global warming

phenomenon, similar disastrous weather aberrations could become the norm.

But if there was a silver lining last week, it was in the overwhelming humanitarian response of other Canadians to the crisis (page 24). The outpouring of aid touched many in the Saguenay region, which has traditionally been Quebec’s separatist heartland. “You can’t help but feel more Canadian and appreciate being Canadian,” said Reginald Gervais, 50, a city councillor in Jonquière, just west of Chicoutimi. Gervais, who voted Yes in last October’s sovereignty referendum, asked reporters: “Can you say thank you for us?”

There was not much else to be thankful for. The torrential rains that began on Friday, July 19, deposited up to eight inches in 48 hours—almost double the normal rainfall for the entire month of July—in some parts of the Saguenay, the hardest hit area north of Quebec City. As the weekend unfolded, the results were catastrophic. Many rivers overflowed, causing hundreds of landslides. Floodwaters ripped through roads, damaged bridges and destroyed several hundred homes, sweeping some away in the current It left up to 2,000 people

homeless, and several areas still had no power, telephone service or drinking water a week after the rains. “I lost everything,” said Marcel Tremblay, a 57-year-old La Baie construction worker who lost his house and car in the flood. But Tremblay, who planned to find a room in the area temporarily, vowed to return to the water’s edge in La Baie. Having collected the $2,500 in immediate relief money being distributed to those who would be homeless for longer than two weeks, he bought some clothes and was looking for a car so he could get back to work.

If ordinary Canadians came through in the face of the crisis, so did the Canadian Forces. Early in the week, the sound of helicopters overhead was constant as the military evacuated thousands of people—many of whom found a temporary home in a shelter set up at CFB Bagotville near La Baie. Evacuee Gemma Bolduc, 68, summed up the army’s work in one word: “Formidable7” For a military buffeted by scandals revolving around its role in Somalia and, more recently, Bosnia, it was an assessment worth relishing. “What you see today, and what you’ve seen in the last few days, is the real Canadian armed forces,” declared Defence Minister David Collenette, who visited the Bagotville base on Wednesday.

Federal Labor Minister Alfonso Gagliano accompanied Collenette to assess the damage to local employers. But while politicians may have been on the scene—politics was notably absent. Premier Lucien Bouchard, who represents the Jonquière riding on the Saguenay, cut short a vacation in California to fly home because of the disaster. Early in the week, the Quebec government announced a $200-million infrastructure fund to help pay for flood damages, and Ottawa anted up 75 per cent of a $250-million fund designed to provide financial assistance for individuals. Both Bouchard and Collenette, who represents a Toronto riding, brushed aside questions about massive federal aid going to a region that has strongly supported Quebec separatism. “This is not about politics,” Collenette said, when asked about an Ottawa radio

host’s demand that federal disaster relief be strongly tied to the national unity issue. Bouchard, for his part, was politely grateful, saying that he was “completely satisfied with the role of the federal government through its different agencies.” Reviewing the flood damage at week’s end, however, the premier said he would be looking for more help from Ottawa to repair businesses, shorelines and tourist facilities.

If there was controversy, it revolved around questions about the possible role the many dams, dikes and reservoirs in the area may have played in the flooding. Hundreds of dams, both government—and private-owned—dot the area, controlling water levels, maintaining reservoirs and assuring supplies for electricity generators. In the wake of the disaster, some flood victims complained that water levels

had been allowed to get too high even before the heavy rain. But the provincial government, responsible for the Lac Kénogami reservoir near Chicoutimi, which overflowed, put the blame squarely on the weather. “There’s no way we could have done better,” said Quebec’s environment minister, David Cliche. Without the reservoir, he said, the situation could have been far worse—it actually slowed the flow of water, allowing time for the evacuation of residents. Still, Cliche said he has asked private dam and dike owners for information on their operations, and would consider subjecting them to government inspections.

While calling the torrential rains that caused the flooding something that happens once “every 10,000 years,” Cliche also acknowledged a new factor: changes in global weather patterns that could result in other disasters. With global warming, he said, it is likely that planners will have to deal with more climate-induced problems such as floods. Others are also saying that Canada—and in fact the world—may be entering a time of more frequent weatherrelated catastrophes. Angus Ross, for one, is a Toronto-based reinsurance agent whose job it is to provide insurance companies with coverage against catastrophes that require them to honor thou-

sands of claims at once. He says that the increasingly unpredictable weather means that both the insurance industry and all levels of government must engage in more research into the likelihood of a trend towards more violent weather. Said Ross: “This flooding has to encourage awareness of the potential for other catastrophes, and convince us to learn more about predicting and preparing for it.” If any region is aware of the damage Mother Nature can

wreak, it is the Saguenay. The recent flooding is the third big disaster to strike the area in two decades. A strong earth-

quake with its epicentre near Chicoutimi rocked the region in November, 1988, causing

widespread, though minor,

damage. Seventeen years earlier, in May, 1971, a massive

evening landslide at St-Jean

Viennay, near Chicoutimi,

engulfed 36 homes, killing 31 people.

But while fatalities in last week’s flooding were far less,

the economic toll promises to be enormous. For one thing, the disaster hit during the region’s peak tourist period, forcing cancellation of various festivals and celebrations. The town of Laterrière, for one, founded 150 years ago, called off the rest of its anniversary celebradons. Joked one municipal employee: “We’ll sure remember our 150th.” With hotels and other accommodations lacking power, roads, tracks and bridges washed

out, and tourists from far away fearful of visiting even regions outside the flood damage, estimates put immediate losses as high as $5 million a day. But local officials such as Serge Plourde, head of the Saguenay Lac St-Jean tourist association, put the stress on doing whatever they could to minimize losses.

The price for other local industries will also be high. Paper producers Abitibi-Price and Stone Consolidated closed two plants for four to six weeks, leaving 1,500 employees out of work. At the Chicoutimi employment centre, a spokesman estimated that shut-

downs by related suppliers, including sawmills, would temporarily affect another 2,500 people. But although the flood damage is widespread—and the region could take more than a year to get back on its feet—some residents have already found a positive side to the disaster. Rebuilding and repairs, they note, may fuel job creation— giving the local economy a welcome boost. One company operating truck-mounted vacuums for industrial uses, for instance, had extra employees working around the clock to empty basements and clean up plants. Firms dealing in bottled water, equipment rental and cellular phones could not keep up with the demand.

Chicoutimi and Jonquière could certainly use a boost: at 14.7 per cent, their unemployment rate is the highest among Canada’s major urban centres. “I don’t want to sound crass,” said Chicoutimi restaurant cook Mario Tremblay, “but it almost takes something like this to kick start the economy in the region.” First, however, the flood areas, particularly the Saguenay, must recover from the solid kick it has taken from nature’s forces.

BRENDA BRANSWELL

LUKE FISHER