‘Ottawa’ 8 DAYS UNDER WATER: How the People of Ottawa and Gatineau Faced a ‘100-year Flood’
Hour after hour, day after day, the rain kept coming.
And those living along the mighty Ottawa River watched as it rose, closer and closer, until the water was beyond their docks, over their lawns and into their homes.
Sandbag was piled upon sandbag, hundreds of thousands across the region, a soggy line of last defence against Mother Nature’s indomitable will. The Quebec government asked, and received, military support. But the cavalry came in the form of volunteers, who showed up by the hundreds to help their neighbours, their friends and strangers alike.
The annual snow melt contributed to the river’s high levels but what made this something different — something historic — was the rain.
The region experienced nearly double its normal level of precipitation for April, and it continued through the first days of this month.
As the river slowly starts to recede and as residents struggle to come to terms with the damage of a “100-year flood,” the Citizen’s Dylan Robertson looks back at just some of those moments — eight days of hell and high water.
Sunday, April 16: The Ottawa River’s “flow rate,” measured at Carillon, Que., east of Ottawa, is at 5,924 cubic metres a second.
Glen Roberts knows something isn’t right. At least he’s pretty sure.
Outside his Cumberland home, water has overtaken the slight dip in his street. He posts a photo online of an orange road-closure sign that’s standing in water, with the caption “River front property.”
Two days later, another Facebook photo will show the sign’s wooden beams covered in water. A flooded-out neighbour checks into a hotel.
“I sounded the alarm April 18th,” Roberts says, scrolling through a message to his city councillor.
The water did go down. On April 27, Roberts posts a photo of his newly planted daffodils and crocuses. The next day, Roberts’ neighbour moves back in.
After a quiet weekend, the water comes back, pooling again by Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, it jumps the lawn.
“By the time I got my sandbags, there was already water surrounding my house,” he says. “And to be honest, what do I know about sandbagging?”
Roberts and his wife will become two of the hundreds of people forced to leave their homes. Both have contract work, and neither qualify for flood insurance.
Like the entire region, they’re grappling to understand the pace of the devastation.
“A week ago, I was gardening in my front yard,” he now says. “Now I’m coming to terms with being homeless.”
Tuesday, May 2: 7,031 cubic metres per second.
It’s the middle of the night and Gatineau firefighters are beginning “voluntary” evacuations for 230 homes in low-lying areas. It’s the region’s first evacuation, though the Ottawa River has already overtaken homes on streets along the Gatineau shoreline such as Hurtubise and Jacques-Cartier. Residents have sandbagged their driveways. In the days ahead they will see more water than the region has in decades.
The city of Gatineau urges residents, via Twitter, to “avoid unnecessary traffic in flooded areas, it creates waves that reach homes.”
City Coun. Sylvie Goneau understands the message too well.
“You’re standing beside your dyke, scared. Scared of it letting go at any moment. But at the same time, you have this sense of pride, because you’ve accomplished this and you have to protect your home. And then you have a car that drives by at a speed that creates a one-to-two-foot wave. And you see part of your dyke starting to fail and water starting to flow in.”
Goneau says there’s panic mixed with exhaustion as they reposition sandbags while standing in ankle-deep mud and knee-deep, freezing water.
It happens to her family at least seven times.
“You have to rush because if you don’t put the sandbags back in place fast enough, it’s a domino effect,” says Goneau, “Now you’re concerned because your house and all your worldly belongings will be flooded because this person wanted to take a picture.”
Days later, her family will be forced to leave their home.
Wednesday, May 3: 7,576 cubic metres a second
Chris Blenkiron is getting ready for bed, but hears splashing coming from the garage and basement of his Cumberland waterfront home.
“The water was rising again,” he says. “It was everywhere.”
Like many along both sides of the river, Blenkiron saw the water rise April 18 by two feet, but it went down within days, without affecting any homes nearby.
Then, it slowly started rising. By Monday, backyards were inundated, and neighbours started laying out sandbags.
Now, as water floods his basement, Blenkiron turns on sump pumps in his basement and heads to bed. At 7 a.m., he groggily opens his front door to see that water pooling at the cusp of his porch.
Over the next few days, friends and neighbours will lay 2,400 bags around his home, effectively creating a moat. But by Saturday afternoon, fire crews will order Blenkiron and his wife to leave, and shut off the power the next day. Blenkiron, a realtor, estimates a quarter-million dollars of damage after the pumps turned off. He doesn’t have flood insurance.
Gatineau entrepreneur Pierrette Quesnel places her red flat-heel boots on the sidewalk, and wades into St-Louis Street in a flood suit.
While the water had risen two weeks ago, it never reached her hair salon. But on Tuesday, as water starts pooling on the street, Quesnel starts laying down sandbags.
“We were totally caught off guard, and we ran out.”
Overnight, the water jumped by about a foot.
She delicately walks over to her salon and tries opening the door, hoping to take the appointment book and tools. She envisions working at home and paying her eight employees.
“It just wasn’t possible. The door was right up to the water and it wouldn’t budge,” she says, with a hint of resignation.
“It’s not easy. You feel powerless. You want to do something. You want it to disappear,” she says. “But we’ll get through it.”
Coun. Stephen Blais tours his Cumberland ward, and finds docks floating across flooded roads, anchored to form a bridge.
He’s “impressed at the ingenuity,” but it shows this isn’t the typical spring thaw.
“It was very apparent that it was far more serious than it had been in the past.”
As the week goes on, neighbours will start stringing multiple docks together, as the water gets higher. By Friday, “the firemen, who are generally pretty tall guys,” find themselves “up to their armpits in water.”
Thursday, May 4: 7,683 cubic metres per second
Two firefighters help 88-year-old Beverley Graveline into an inflatable, yellow dingy, as water surrounds her Bayview Drive home in Constance Bay, in Ottawa’s northwest corner. The area has been hit hard.
As Graveline lies on her stomach, the firefighters coax the raft some 100 metres, to where the road rises.
She calls the ride nerve-wracking, adding “I have bad knees.”
Graveline wanted to stay, but firefighters eventually tell her they need to cut the electricity.
To appease her, four firefighters will return the next day to extricate Graveline’s dove, Miss Lucy. The dove laid an egg early, which Graveline says was probably from the stress.
Now staying at her son’s nearby house, Graveline plays country music, as it calms both the bird and herself. “Your home is your home; there’s nothing like it.”
Clarence-Rockland Mayor Guy Desjardins makes his municipality the area’s first to declare a state of emergency, after consulting with his fire chief.
“It started raining. That’s when we decided to go for it.”
With some residents already flooded and more rain on the way, Desjardins says the decision isn’t hard. He figures a state of emergency may give the uninsured a better chance at compensation.
“We didn’t want to take any chances.”
More than 40 mm will fall through the day, washing away the previous record of 24.6 mm set in 1985.
Over in Constance Bay, Kathryn Scott is dropping off a friend. As she does, her headlights beam over residents desperately piling sandbags, while others sit on the ground, crying.
“It was jaw-dropping, it was heart-breaking, it was just total devastation. I had no concept that it could ever be that bad,” recalls Scott, president of the Legion’s West Carleton branch.
The next morning, she easily convinces the legion executive to open its doors for the hungry and homeless.
By noon, the Red Cross asks to set up a crisis centre, offering water-test kits, counsellors and housing referrals.
Meanwhile, volunteers offer daycare and storage lockers. They cook thousands of hot meals. Local grocery stores donate prime ribs.
“I know some people whose lives have been totally devastated, and they’re the ones offering cooked meals,” Scott says. “These people have lost everything, and they’re the ones volunteering to give back. That’s breathtaking.”
Friday, May 5: 7,551 cubic metres per second
At a drab office in downtown Montreal, Quebec’s public safety minister hunches over a microphone.
“We’re in front of a situation where we not only have serious flooding, but the situation will continue to deteriorate for a few days,” Martin Coiteux says, listing historic water levels for four regions, including the Outaouais.
Eyeing the room of reporters as if seeking approval, Coiteux cautiously says he called his federal counterpart that day “to request support from the Canadian Armed Forces.”
Minutes later, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson stands in front of a road-closure barrier and tells reporters he’d only declare a state of emergency if the city needed more equipment.
“We have all the necessary resources that we need,” he says while holding a black umbrella with a City of Ottawa seal.
According to an afternoon memo from the city’s emergency manager, “There are no financial or operational benefits to declaring a state of emergency.”
That evening, Ontario activates its disaster relief assistance fund for Renfrew County.
Saturday, May 6: 8,121 cubic metres per second
As water straddles the curb of Alain Matte’s driveway, police tell him he must leave within hours.
Across the river from Rockcliffe Park, the uneven bend of shore-lined Jacques-Cartier Street decides who is left homeless and who is unscathed.
“I’ve been battling this for the last five, six days. Today, I lost the battle,” Matte says. He rubs his temples and sighs before picking up yet another phone call.
Outside the window, Hydro-Québec workers clear branches, planters and Muskoka chairs, so a neighbour’s boat can help people evacuate.
Inside, Matte circles his kitchen as he talks, weaving between piles of books, tools and appliances. Noisy fans are making little progress drying the floor.
“Why did the mayor say no to the army?”
His voice rises, as he peppers his thoughts with expletives. “Why the f— did he do that? Why did he leave us like this?”
Down the street, Sam Lofley says everything’s fine.
The previous evening, a pump malfunctioned around 9 p.m., flooding Bay Park, the Sterling restaurant parking lot and Lofley’s backyard.
But his townhouse is fine and doesn’t have a basement.
“Maybe I’ll get a chance to get the kayak out,” he jokes. But he’s quick to acknowledge the evacuees. “I know it’s not good for a lot of people.”
The community is rallying. They’re fighting for their homes, for their neighbours and for strangers.
All morning, hundreds of volunteers have been filling sandbags at the Constance and Buckham’s Bay Community Association.
Just after lunch, they run out of bags.
Heather Lucente calls it “a disheartening moment.”
More bags will show up around 3 p.m., after water has engulfed two homes.
“Those hundreds of volunteers; they were cold, they were wet,” says Lucente, who co-ordinates their efforts. “They were soaked to the bone, but they stayed.”
Within four hours, the volunteers send out almost 20,000 bags of sand.
Through a Facebook group with more than 2,800 members, people at the community centre start telling strangers that they have too many volunteers, and too much food to go around.
Lucente says more than 1,100 people have registered as volunteers, and they’ll be needed for the cleanup. Many come from across town.
“We’re a little community on the outside of Ottawa,” she says. “But we really feel like we are the centre of the city of Ottawa.”
A cavalcade of 20 large military vehicles rumbles down Alexandre-Taché Blvd. toward the Hull Regiment. As armoured personnel carriers and tarp-covered trucks turn the corner, passersby cheer, shout and clap.
The vehicles line up outside the brick armoury and turn off their engines, before 115 troops gather and stand at attention.
Maj. Emmanuel Pelletier-Bédard welcomes the soldiers, asking about their six-hour journey from CFB Valcartier.
“We had rain before Montreal and then after Montreal,” one soldier jokes.
Late Saturday, the city of Gatineau will report that 466 people have now left their homes.
In the Pontiac village of Quyon, ferry owner Don McColgan stops the ferry to Ontario for the first time since 1957.
“It was totally unexpected,” says McColgan, who noticed the loading ramps rise by six inches each of the preceding five days. He makes the decision after seeing drivers hesitantly mount a ramp with a half-foot is covered in water.
“It’s been a tradition for over a hundred years, that there’s been a ferry here,” says McColgan, whose family has run the service for the past six decades. “Horses uses to turn a turnstile for paddling the wheels.”
Sunday, May 7: 8,783 cubic metres per second
Firefighters tell Erica Fleming to get out of her Cumberland home on Boisé Lane. Visibly pregnant, with just two weeks until her due date, Fleming asks for more time. The firefighters can’t give it to her.
“With the baby, she could come at any time. You have so much you have to bring. You have so much to think about,” she says.
Firefighters escort her through the water, and she settles at a friend’s house. She clings to hope the flood will subside in time for her to be home when the baby comes.
“As long as she comes out healthy and everyone is safe, that’s all that really matters.”
Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée boards a military helicopter on the lawn of the Hull Regiment. The provincial legislator responsible for West Quebec gets a sky-high view of the damage around Gatineau and the troops trying to clear water from Highway 50.
The helicopter then circles the Pontiac region, as soldiers help with evacuations.
“Citizens have spent three weeks placing dykes around their homes,” she tells reporters an hour later at a fold-up table inside Pontiac’s community hall. “It’s heartbreaking to see all the work that was done, and then see the waves going over them.”
On the other end of the table, Pontiac Mayor Roger Larose nervously wobbles his rainboots. He has bags under his eyes. “People are tired; we’re tired,” he says, taking a break from the rescue efforts down the hill. “We’re at our wits’ end.”
Outside, Natalie Fraser sees the first military vehicle come down Highway 148 as she lifts sandbags.
“It was like: OK, here’s the army. We almost expected it,” she says. “They really helped us but seeing them wasn’t a surprise. We were already in crisis mode.”
At the Hull firehouse, officials give reporters the latest numbers on the flood evacuees. Gatineau police say they’ve only had two theft complaints, which they’re still investigating.
Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin says he’s impressed by the number of volunteers, but dismayed at people entering closed-off areas to gawk at tragedy.
“To the curious, stay at home,” he says sternly.
The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat announces it’s closing federal offices in Gatineau on Monday, and urges public servants not to cross interprovincial bridges to go to work.
“The top priority is the safety and security of employees and those in the affected communities,” reads a statement. The order will be extended through Tuesday.
Back at the Pontiac community hall, a stranger has left 10 unopened beer bottles. Joanne Labadie puts down her clipboard, undoes her raincoat and uncorks a Lot 9 pilsner.
“I could really use this about now,” she says, clinking bottles with a handful of neighbours.
As a trustee for the sprawling Western Quebec English school board, she’s fielded calls from parents across the region wondering whether their children’s schools are open. In Maniwaki, a French school has opened up three classrooms for flooded-out students.
The longtime resident has co-ordinated volunteers, helped manage a limited supply of sandbags and told police about a few unfamiliar faces trying to access the abandoned streets.
“We’ve also fended off a few cottage owners from the sandbags,” she says. “We need the save the homes first.”
As co-owner of a nearby winery, she has her own worries.
“This is just the start for us,” putting her beer down and staring at the plastic floor. Her friends pause.
“People are starting down the prospect of losing an entire tourist season. That’s our whole economy.”
Monday, May 8: 8,862 cubic metres per second
At a news conference, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says two out of three emergency shelters have closed. Officials suggest the river might be about to crest.
“There’s going to be a tremendous personal toll on people, not just the trauma but the physical toll of people hauling sandbags,” Watson says, declaring it “the worst flooding since the 1920s.”
While Watson fends off criticism for not declaring a state of emergency, City Manager Steve Kanellakos thanks volunteers.
“In my travels through the impacted areas, I can tell you the images don’t capture the significance of the situation,” he says. “It was heartbreaking.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tell reporters the federal government has added 250,000 additional sandbags from the military’s stockpile to Ontario’s stash, after the province simply ran out. A total of 1,650 Canadian Armed Forces have been deployed to Quebec, adds the recently embattled defence minister, Sajjan Harjit.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and Mayor Jim Watson talk to residents and flood victims in Cumberland, including Michel Bourbonnais and his wife, Maggie, on Morin Road. “Seeing is believing,” Watson says of Wynne’s visit.
Coun. Blais announces Hwy. 174 is closed until further notice from Trim Road to Cameron Street due to soil erosion.
Jordan and Cory Legue drive their flatbed truck through the flooded streets of Cumberland. The brothers drop off sandbags and generator fuel to those at need, and make sure the lighthouse is working.
“The strong wind means more water,” says Jordan, a manager at Jonny’s Towing. The two dole out 2,000 bags before work calls Jordan to a pickup in Orleans.
When he’s done towing, Jordan returns to Cumberland, where the two check on an elderly woman with no power. A generator has pumps running in her crawlspace, and she uses flashlights and candles to see.
“At nighttime when it’s normally all quiet, all you can hear is water running, pumps going, generators. It’s devastating for these people,” says Cory. “These people can’t sleep at night.”
A volunteer who lives on higher ground invites the Legue brothers to stay for the night.
Tuesday, May 9: 8,645 cubic metres per second
Highway 174 reopens in both directions in Cumberland, and Gatineau’s Highway 50 partially reopens. Weather officials suggest sun is on its way, while Gatineau city officials note a “slight decline” in water levels. The federal government later decides to open its Gatineau offices for Wednesday.
Sitting on a military raft, Gov. Gen. David Johnston dons a camouflage life vest and tours the area around Hurtubise Boulevard in Gatineau. He looks uneasy as Pelletier-Bédard points out some of the first areas to evacuate.
“To all those affected by the floods, I want you to know that we are with you, and that you are not alone,” he later writes in a statement. “The whole country is rooting for you during this difficult time.”
Chris Blenkiron returns to his Cumberland home with his wife, Genevieve Landry, for the first time since its evacuation Saturday.
In a Facebook live video, Landry walks through their home, covered by a foot of water.
“I have no words,” she says. “Overwhelmed.”
She steps over a floating piece of firewood, a toilet brush, the dog bowl. Her treadmill is partially submerged. She sobs, and the video shakes.
“All the work, all the labour,” she says.
“Thank you for your support, guys,” she tells friends and strangers watching online. “Please don’t stop, ’cause we still need the support,” she says as her voice cracks, “and the encouragement. Not only us, but everybody that’s affected by this.”
With files from Blair Crawford, Andrew Seymour and Jon Willing and Tom Spears