While floodwaters in Eastern Canada appear to be stabilizing a major new threat is looming on the horizon that could extend the crisis in Quebec and Ontario well into the spring.
Lake Ontario has reached flood level and officials issued warnings to shoreline residents Tuesday that water will continue to rise into May or June. All that water flows downstream to the Montreal region where thousands are flooded and measuring stations along the St. Lawrence River are already approaching or exceeding 2017 flood levels.
The international board that controls the Moses-Saunders Power Dam near Cornwall, Ont., boosted the flow downstream a small amount Monday to relieve pressure on Lake Ontario. The current flooding that chased more than 13,600 Canadians from their homes struck Quebeckers most severely along the Ottawa River system, which joins the St. Lawrence near Montreal.
The fresh information left Quebeckers with dramatically conflicting messages from Ottawa and Quebec City.
“The water levels will continue to rise so we’re not out of the woods yet at all in Quebec,” said federal Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Ralph Goodale during his Tuesday national flood briefing.
Meanwhile Premier François Legault’s government told Quebeckers the worst is behind them. “Since the situation is improving we will turn our attention to the victims,” Mr. Legault said. “We are going in the right direction.”
Provincial Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault added “the worst is behind us in terms of flooding and evacuations but now we’re starting a long recovery phase.”
Mr. Goodale, who was briefing reporters on the national flood scene, insisted it is too early to declare victory. “Lake Ontario is just about to get to its maximum normal runoff,” he said. “All of that obviously has to flow east combining with the flow that’s coming down the Ottawa. That presents significant potential issues in relation to Montreal and places further downstream. We’re watching that situation very carefully.”
He added that precipitation predicted for coming days, which could include up to 50 millimetres of rain north of Lake Ontario and 20 millimetres of rain or 10 centimetres of snow in Quebec, could also worsen conditions in both provinces.
The potential for Lake Ontario water exacerbating the Quebec flood echoes 2017, when officials struggled to balance flooding on the lake with flooding downstream. The current Ottawa River flooding has already pushed high-water marks above 2017 all along the path between eastern Ontario and Montreal.
And the water was still rising in a few parts of the flood zone Tuesday. Residents of the Quebec village of Quyon, 60 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, were among several hundred evacuated from low-lying areas in the region as one dike became unstable with the water still projected to rise a final 20 centimetres by Thursday.
Tony Joyce and his mother, Bernadette Milks, were among the last holdouts watching the Quyon and Ottawa Rivers rise on three sides of the village while workers tried to reinforce a threatened dike.
Mr. Joyce, whose house sits on a ridge on the outskirts of Quyon, said the water was still two metres below the level where it would cause his home real distress. But basements are already full of water in lower parts of town and officials are worried the sewer and water systems would fail if the dike fails. “It’s wet out there, but it’s nothing new for us,” Mr. Joyce said in an interview.
Joanne Labadie, the mayor of the Pontiac municipality that includes Quyon, said major uncertainty remains. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “We’ve passed 2017 levels and we’re in the unknown.”
Over all, across Quebec more than 10,000 people were still out of 6,704 flooded homes on Tuesday. About one quarter of those victims are in Quebec’s Outaouais region that includes Gatineau and extends northwest of Ottawa. Officials said it would be at least a week and possibly two before the crisis subsides.
Floodwaters were draining in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que., the scene of a dramatic flash flood and evacuation on the weekend after a dike broke. Temporary dikes and pumping stations were slowly draining a large portion of the floodwaters that rushed in overnight Saturday.
Some 6,500 people left 2,500 homes during that evacuation, but local officials had good news Tuesday, saying only 867 homes were flooded among them.
However, people still have to wait to return to 1,485 of the undamaged homes because water, sewer and electricity remain knocked out. “There are important health concerns until we get the services back,” Mayor Sonia Paulus said.
People in the dry and drained zone were allowed to return home briefly to take stock and collect valuables.
Water levels were dropping in Ontario cottage country and New Brunswick.
In northern New Brunswick, the water dropped below flood levels by midday Tuesday and were on their way down in the battered southern swath of the Saint John River basin.
Greg MacCallum, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, said most regions along the river system should be out of the flood stage by the end of the week.
But the province is still far from a return to normal, he warned. “We’re turning a corner and I think that’s obvious to everybody. But it’s a long corner,” he said. “This flood isn’t over yet. It’s not time to relax.”
With a report from Jessica Leeder in Halifax