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Severe Flooding Has Displaced Thousands In Quebec, And More Rain Is Forecast

Exile on Ontario St
Rue Cousineau, in the Cartierville neighborhood of Montreal May 8, 2017. Severe flooding has affected 173 municipalities around Quebec.

Severe flooding has hit 173 municipalities around Quebec. More than 4,000 homes were flooded, and about 3,000 people were forced out of their homes. And more rain is expected this weekend.

Steve Rukavina of CBC Montreal spoke with VPR's Liam Elder-Connors about flooding and the recovery effort.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

What's been going on this week?

“Well, it's not just this week, it's really this spring: It's one of the worst flooding seasons probably in a generation for the province of Quebec. And you know, about six years ago we did have some flooding through the Richelieu Valley, which I think filtered down to Lake Champlain as well. That was pretty bad. There were hundreds of people evacuated.

"What's different this time, I think, is just the breadth of the flooding; it's affecting communities across Quebec, right from the western part of Quebec near Ottawa all the way out to the Gaspé coast and all spots in between.

“And also … because it's affected, really for the first time in probably 20 or 30 years, it's affecting properties right in suburban Montreal as well ... these aren't just small towns that are on riverfront. It's the city as well that's affected. And you know as you said in the numbers, hundreds — thousands of people affected by this, huge amounts of damage and enormous cleanup awaits people. So it's really quite massive.”

Has anyone been killed in this flooding or has it just been evacuations so far?

“So far just evacuations. There was one case in the Gaspé coast where a guy was driving on a flooded-out road where he wasn't supposed to drive, and his car went in the river with him and a young child in it. And they found his body, they haven't found the child's body — presumed dead. So you can partially certainly blame that on the flooding, although police are still looking into the exact circumstances of that.

"But mostly what the impact of these floods has been mass evacuations, people working round the clock trying to save their homes with sandbags … There's going to be a huge cleanup in the weeks and months to come.”

What has the damage to infrastructure been like?

"In the Gaspé coast this morning there's a bridge there that one of the supports on the bridge over a river is threatening to collapse. That bridge has been closed. It's not destroyed yet, but they're keeping a close eye on it.

"Here in Montreal, they had to close off one of the main bridges that accesses the island from the west simply because the water was almost up on the roadway surface. So that was for about a four-day period over the weekend, which really led to traffic chaos for anyone trying to get on the island of Montreal. That has subsided now.

"And then there's a bridge that connects a small island in suburban Montreal to a larger island that they had to close and there's about 20 homes on that island and they had to be evacuated because the people were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. And there's smaller bridges in smaller towns that are affected by this as well."

What has the government's response been?

“It's a pretty massive response, but it's not without its problems. The biggest complaints I've heard is from people who live in Montreal, that even when the city and local borough officials knew this was coming, they weren't able to get sandbags delivered to them quickly or in a timely fashion or in some cases not at all. And they said even when it was clear that there was a major risk of flooding, the response of the city seemed a bit slow, seemed a bit lackluster. And there's real rage about that right now.

“In fact, there was a guy two days ago — he was trying to bring sandbags on a trailer into his house, which was on a flooded-out road. This is Montreal. And the police didn't like where he's putting the sandbags because they were worried it might divert water and flood a railway track that was nearby. So they asked him to stop. He refused.

"He was arrested and taken away in handcuffs and he's kind of become this symbolic folk hero for peoplewho are upset with the response of the city. You know, there's signs like ‘Free Alain’ — because his name is Alain. On the other hand, the province and the federal government in Ottawa are seen as having responded fairly quickly, bringing in the army from the provincial-level, making provincial funding available to reimburse people. That response has been generally positive reviewed.

“There has been a debate set off sort of about who should be paying for all this and why we're even building homes in these flood plains in the first place. And so now that the water is starting to recede, at least here, there's a large debate and a lot of hand-wringing about, 'Well, why should the rest of taxpayer-subsidized people who built their homes on flood plains,’ et cetera, et cetera. So those debates will continue. They aren't going anywhere.”

More rain is forecast for some areas around Quebec this weekend. What are people doing to prepare?

“For the areas in Montreal and parts west, what public security officials are saying is that that will simply slow the lowering of the water level, but it will not mean the waters will rise again. But for central Quebec … the floodwater that basically starts in the Ottawa River and then moves east, that floodwater is just arriving there now.

"At the same time, we had record snow falls this winter, so the snow melt is continuing to arrive down there. And coupled with that rain, that's the region where they're going to be watching things this weekend. That's the next region that's under threat. It's kind of moving from the west to the east.

"The Canadian military has been dispatched. They're sending 500 more soldiers there now preemptively, but they do expect those floodwaters to sort of crest at some point this weekend.

"And so the last couple of weeks, it's really been in the western part of the province. Now, it's moving towards the center, and that's going to be the focus this weekend and there is a lot of concern about rivers spilling their banks there, and we'll probably see more homes on top of the thousands already evacuated."

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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