Bed and breakfast owner Marian Langhus has tried interpreting the tidal patterns, moon phases, snow conditions, water levels and long-range forecasts to predict flooding along the St. John River. But sometimes the best gauge is the picnic table on the wharf.
“When the water covers the table, we know we’re going to have water in the basement,” said Ms. Langhus, who co-owns Lang House Bed and Breakfast in the village of Gagetown, N.B.
Ms. Langhus, like a lot of Canadians in flood-prone regions, is closely watching local waterways this month and hoping water levels don’t keep rising.
In the middle of a pandemic, people who live in flood zones are being warned that provincial authorities won’t be able to respond in the usual way. Quarantine rules and physical distancing restrictions will affect everything from sandbagging efforts to evacuation protocols; officials are telling some property owners they may have to find their own emergency shelters.
Ms. Langhus’s home was hit by flooding in back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019, when the St. John River rose dramatically. Two years ago, the water overflowed her basement, carried away her veranda and damaged her walls and floors. The house was one of 12,000 properties damaged in the province during that spring’s historic floods. Last year, it happened again, turning her living room into a “kiddie pool.”
People in the province are anxiously watching river levels, after a surprise snowfall this week and rain in the forecast elevated the risk of flooding. It’s expected three communities, Fredericton, Gagetown and Saint-Hilaire, could reach the flood stage by Wednesday. The military said it has 2,000 troops on standby if they’re needed.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has insisted the province can handle two crises – COVID-19 and flooding – at the same time, if it happens. But Ms. Langhus and others worry there’s little provincial funding left to help residents rebuild if flooding occurs again.
“These are the two huge stresses in my life right now,” she said. “Even if this COVID-19 didn’t happen, I still don’t think there would be money for anybody who needs to rebuild.”
In Quebec, the provincial government has warned any potential floods will be handled differently this year. The government says it will not be able to open emergency shelters as it did in 2019, when thousands were forced from their homes as many communities flooded. The province has called on municipalities to organize hotels and university dorms in case of evacuations.
“The current pandemic is changing the way we do business, and managing a possible spring flood will be no exception,” Quebec’s Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault said. “We’re hopeful we’ll be spared this year, but we need to be prepared for everything.”
In Quebec’s Beauce region, river ice jams caused minor street flooding on April 4. As onlookers gathered to evaluate the situation, the Sûreté du Québec had to disperse crowds. Ms. Guilbault reminded Quebeckers this week they are not allowed to gather, even during a flood.
“You can’t get together because you’re curious,” Ms. Guilbault said.
Manitoba, meanwhile, has introduced new rules designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus in flood response crews. That includes keeping people working on sandbagging lines at least two metres apart.
“This spring, we are potentially facing the unique challenge of fighting a high water event while at the same time slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Manitoba’s Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said.
“We are rising to that challenge and have developed a creative and innovative solution to ensure sandbagging will be undertaken while keeping Manitobans safe.”
The distancing restrictions are already complicating flood prevention efforts in parts of Winnipeg. City officials have told dozens of property owners to have their sandbag dikes up in time for an anticipated peak on the Red River next week – while keeping their distance from anyone who doesn’t live in their house.
“We are going to try and assist the homeowners with using [physical] distancing, with good information, so that they can reach out to their volunteers and make sure that they’re doing their best,” said Jason Shaw, Winnipeg’s emergency operations manager.
The city has roughly 200,000 sandbags ready for spring flooding this year. If the latest assessment from Manitoba is accurate in its prediction of a lower risk of flooding, many are hoping they won’t be needed.
While touting their preparations, government officials around the country have acknowledged the difficulty of planning for flooding during a pandemic. In Northern Ontario, the roughly 2,000 residents of Kashechewan may be moved into tents if the nearby James Bay and the Albany River flood again rather than being flown to other communities as has happened in the past. But local leaders say the Canadian government has been slow in providing needed resources – something the federal and provincial NDP says shows governments are too preoccupied with COVID-19 to come up with a proper evacuation plan.
In New Brunswick, meanwhile, the province’s emergency measures organization says good weather has allowed for a gradual melt and kept water levels generally below flood-stage levels. But it warns that flooding on the St. John River, the largest waterway in the province, is always difficult to predict.
It’s urging homeowners to be ready for rising water at any moment, while heeding public health recommendations for COVID-19.
“Preparedness starts at the individual home owner. We remind the public to use this time to be prepared,” said Robert Duguay, a spokesperson with the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization.
Ms. Langhus said she didn’t feel comfortable staying in a hotel during a pandemic, so she arranged with a neighbour to rent their cottage in the event of an evacuation.
The coronavirus will undoubtedly affect any response and recovery operations, Mr. Duguay said, and officials are trying to plan for situations where sandbaggers need to do their work while wearing masks, keeping a safe distance from each other and cleaning their equipment.
Many in New Brunswick, including Ms. Langhus, are hoping it never comes to that. Her gut, and own her research, suggest flooding won’t be as bad as it has been in recent years. Still, she’s bracing for the worst.
“I think it’ll be close, but I don’t think it’s coming in the house,” she said. “If it does, we’ll have a real problem.”
With a report from Les Perreaux
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