Rising floodwaters are claiming homes and washing out roads in four provinces, prompting politicians of all stripes to warn about the looming crisis of climate change.
A dozen municipal governments in Quebec and at least four in Ontario have declared states of emergency as the spring melt and a very wet April combine to push rivers, lakes and streams over their banks. Parts of New Brunswick and southern Manitoba are also affected by flooding.
A rainstorm hitting Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, bringing as much as 60 mm of rain to already flooded areas Friday and Saturday, is adding to the misery.
The federal government has deployed more than 1,700 soldiers to help with sandbagging and other relief efforts in Quebec, New Brunswick and Ottawa. Municiaplities are calling for volunteers to also help if they can.
Officials are also warning people to heed orders for evacuations and road closures.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the response to all the flooding ”is an all-hands-on-deck, whole-of-government approach,” including from everyday Canadians.
“Emergency situations like these tend to bring out our better angels,” he said in a news conference in Regina. ”The instincts of Canadians are to help each other. That’s who we are and that’s what we do.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency because of flooding Thursday, with another 20 mm to 50 mm of rain forecast to fall Friday and Saturday. Water regulators estimate the Ottawa River’s level will rise nearly a metre within the next few days, well above its peak in a 2017 flood that was thought to have been a once-in-a-century event.
The federal government deployed 400 soldiers to Ottawa Friday morning to help. The most serious flooding so far is in villages along the Ottawa River outside the downtown core, but a riverbank path behind Parliament is already underwater.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford visited Friday morning to meet affected homeowners and help fill some sandbags. He said the government is on “high alert” and has told Watson the province will help with whatever is needed.
“This is absolutely heart-wrenching,” Ford said. “It’s one thing to see it on the cameras, it’s another thing when you talk to the people face-to-face — and it just rips your heart out.”
Pete Davies is trying to save his navy bungalow in the rural Ottawa community of Woodlawn for the second time in just three years. Davies says he is using hip waders to get out of his house to get to work right now and he and his wife had to use a boat to get groceries home.
Just two years ago the couple were forced from their home along the Ottawa River for more than two months before rebuilding.
“We thought we’d never see it again,” Davies said Friday.
They’re hoping to stay in their house as long as possible this year with the help of a sump pump and generator, but Davies knows they could be forced to evacuate.
Several military trucks arrived in Woodlawn Friday morning with soldiers and supplies, and public-health officials and firefighters used an inflatable rescue boat to go door-to-door to check on residents.
The municipality of Clarence-Rockland just east of Ottawa, as well as the towns of Bracebridge and Huntsville in the Muskoka region north of Toronto, have also declared states of emergency.
Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith asked cottage owners not to go to their properties to check for damage this weekend because there are a lot of roads closed. He is worried people will put themselves in harm’s way.
“Don’t try and be a hero,” he said.
Several regions in the province are affected by flooding, including Gatineau and other communities along the Ottawa River, parts of Montreal and the Beauce region south of Quebec City.
Officials in Rigaud, Que., about 70 km west of Montreal, ordered evacuations in all flood-affected areas Friday morning.
Quebec officials said 3,150 homes had already been flooded and 1,111 people forced to leave. Another 2,300 homes had been isolated by flooding.
Twelve municipalities have declared states of emergency and 1,000 soldiers are on the ground helping.
Gatineau mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said Friday morning that he expects river levels in his region to peak by Monday or Tuesday. But because snow melt from the north has not yet reached the area, he said water levels could remain very high for two weeks.
Pedneaud-Jobin said more than 700 people have registered so far as flood victims, but that had been 4,000 people and 1,600 homes affected.
While flood waters are expected to be higher than in 2017, he said the city is better prepared this time so the number of people forced to evacuate may not be higher.
So far, he said, he has ordered up to $1 million in supplies and equipment to help residents affected by the flooding.
Officials in Quebec are also keeping a close eye on a hydroelectric dam, on a tributary of the Ottawa River east of Ottawa and west of Montreal, that’s at risk of failing.
The Chute-Bell dam has reached “millennial” water levels, meaning a flood that happens once every 1,000 years, but Hydro-Quebec said it’s confident the structure is solid.
The Surete du Quebec said Friday 75 people who live downriver from the dam had been evacuated.
The Saint John River is flooding for the second year in a row. Officials now think the water will crest at about the same levels as last year but the weekend rainfall could change things.
In New Brunswick, Goodale said, 140 roads have been flooded, 290 people are out of their homes and downtown Fredericton is closed. The Trans-Canada Highway between Oromocto and River Glade is closed and likely will remain so for several more days.
The Red Cross has registered 900 evacuees from 330 households in New Brunswick.
There are 310 soldiers helping in New Brunswick.
The rising Red River in southern Manitoba has forced some road closures and a small number of evacuations near the community of St. Jean Baptiste. Earlier predictions for major flooding between the U.S. border and Winnipeg haven’t come to pass because of less snowfall than expected in April and a slower than expected spring melt.
The bills for flood relief and mitigation are already climbing. The federal disaster-assistance program covers 90 per cent of government costs for major events, and provincial programs can help municipalities pay some bills. In 2017, the Ottawa River flooding also racked up $223 million in private insurance coverage.
Goodale said the military is entitled to reimbursement, but in the last decade, it has never sent a bill for disaster help.
He said costs will be worked out once the immediate danger has subsided.
“The fact of the matter is we are all just putting our shoulder to wheel in the most effective way to make sure that the personnel and the resources are available to fight the immediate disaster and that we keep people safe and secure.”
Goodale and Ford became the latest politicians Friday to warn that this type of flooding is becoming the norm thanks to climate change.
“I think all levels of government are learning some expensive lessons from this flooding experience of the last number of years and the message from climate change is: Don’t think it is going away,” said Goodale. “It’s going to get progressively more and more difficult. It’s going to get worse rather than getting better.”
Ford also said having another 100-year flood just two years after the last one can be blamed on climate change.
“Something is going on and we have to be conscious of it,” he said.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs both said this week it is time to start getting homeowners in these flood prone areas to move. Ford said Friday he is willing to sit down and talk to local community leaders about what may have to happen but wouldn’t go as far as to say Ontario will require or help pay for relocations.
“These folks can’t go through this every single year,” he said.
—with files from Stephanie Taylor in Regina, Michael Tutton in Halifax and Terry Pedwell and Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press