Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac has all the hallmarks of a pastoral waterfront retreat: recreational waters, nearby mountains and close proximity to the big city, Montreal, just an hour’s drive away. But since the river breached a dike and flooded the town six weeks ago, the retreat is starting to feel more like a trap.
All across Quebec, flooded residents are beginning to confront a wrenching reality: Should they stay or should they go? The new provincial government’s compensation program, many say, is inflexible, miserly and slow, leaving them a tough choice: depart and accept major financial loss, or remain and hope there won’t be a next flood.
As provinces across Canada grapple with sudden massive rainfalls, earlier spring melts and rising water levels related to climate change, crucial questions arise about how to defend against future disasters, and about who should shoulder the cost of the current situation. And the problem – and price – will only worsen. John Pomeroy, a hydrologist and director of the Global Water Futures Program at the University of Saskatchewan, spells out the stakes: Before 2000, total flood damage in Canada added up to about $1-billion. Since 2000, the average has been $1-billion dollars a year. “It’s increased population, shoreline development, a changing climate. It’s not going to get better.”
Some 17,500 Canadian homes were flooded this spring, the largest portion in Quebec, but also some in New Brunswick, Ontario and Manitoba. Even as most of the country is dealing with cleanup and recovery, Lake Ontario was expected to reach a near-record high peak this weekend, with localized flooding and worries about shoreline erosion.
No national plan and few permanent provincial plans exist for disaster prevention measures, such as compensating owners to move them out of flood zones, or restoring and protecting wetlands and shorelines. The current patchwork of programs guarantees future disaster, experts say.
In Quebec, the compensation program offered by Premier François Legault’s government has left many householders unhappy, facing an unenviable choice.
“I don’t have enough damage to leave, and I don’t have enough trust in the future to want to stay,” said Anne-Marie Boutet of Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, whose finished basement and garage flooded this spring, causing about $70,000 damage – an amount $30,000 short of the government threshold where the province would buy her out and turn the lot back to nature. She would like to leave, but the province’s rules may force her family to rebuild instead.
Some 800 Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac homes were flooded after a dike broke at the end of April. On May 16, townspeople were informed new draft Quebec flood maps may declare 1,500 homes in the town to be in a “flood zone.” For the past 40 years, the same town had only two houses with that designation. One broken dike changed the map and the destiny of hundreds of families, who now face the prospect of watching their property values decline as they rebuild behind a repaired dike that many no longer trust, after the trauma of an emergency evacuation.
The flood map, which is subject to regional council approval, also leaves citizens facing the prospect of no insurance and bankruptcy, Mayor Sonia Paulus says. “We are going to have to sit down and try to negotiate this,” she told reporters. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Residents recently gathered for a meeting where they vented their rage about the uncertainty in which they have landed. While other provinces of Canada grapple with their own compensation plans, residents of Sainte-Marthe feel particularly aggrieved. A couple dozen went to the Quebec National Assembly in late May to complain about confusion and delay surrounding the path forward and to convey their urgency to Mr. Legault’s government.
From the moment the first Quebec homes were flooded this spring until the toll of damaged houses reached 7,000 in May, Mr. Legault has maintained he is taking a compassionate but firm approach to flooded residents: The government is there to help, but only so much.
Quebec will pay up to $100,000 to repair flooded homes and $250,000 to buy out houses damaged beyond the limit. Mr. Legault says he will not budge to sweeten the amount, even in areas such as Montreal, where the average house price is nearly double the buyout limit. Homeowners who refuse buyouts will be completely liable in future floods.
Geneviève Delisle, a teacher and single mother of three, lives in a “non-flood” zone, according to the deed of her $500,000 home in Montreal’s Île-Bizard. She was flooded in 2017. Her house has remained dry so far in 2019 with the help of a two-metre temporary dike she helped build with neighbours and some city help. She says she understands property owners such as her might have to leave flood-prone areas, but she invited Mr. Legault to take a hike, in less polite terms, with his potential offer for half of what her home is worth. Without any damage this year, it is unlikely she would qualify anyway.
“Everything I have, everything I’ve made, everything I plan to pass along to my kids is in this house,” she said, adding she would probably accept an offer to leave for market price. “I understand the issues at play, but I won’t go bankrupt for them.”
Mr. Legault’s flood plan, put in place just weeks before the water started rising earlier this year, and New Brunswick’s plan, announced May 3, with a $160,000 limit, are just the latest examples of Canada’s ad-hoc approach. Each province and municipality operate differently, according to the government, the disaster and the mood of the people. Most programs, such as the one in Quebec, address immediate disaster recovery and don’t cover future flood mitigation, ecological restoration or adaptation to climate change.
In Mr. Legault’s case, limiting taxpayer liability is also a main goal. The province has paid $30-million in compensation so far, but it’s only a small fraction of the bill. “We are trying to be equitable. People who are richer and moved to places where houses are more expensive, I don’t think it’s up to Quebeckers as a whole to pay for that,” Mr. Legault told reporters in May. “Are taxpayers interested in paying $400,000, $500,000? It’s not reasonable.”
What’s “reasonable” may be in the eye of the taxpayer – or perhaps an accountant-by-profession such as Mr. Legault – but flood-mitigation experts agree: A low buyout cap and inflexible program are fatal flaws if the goal is to remove people from harm’s way and turn developed land back to nature where it can absorb floodwaters and mitigate harm downstream. Plans such as those of Mr. Legault leave neighbourhoods checkered with vacant lots and holdout residents.
Previous Quebec floods have also led to gap-tooth buyout results. Quebec demolished just 405 of the 5,371 homes damaged in 2017, based solely on how damaged houses were. Hundreds of others got special authorization to rebuild, despite being in floodplains.
“Successful regimes have been mandatory and have given fair value for homes,” Dr. Pomeroy said. “Sometimes they’re worth a million dollars but that’s the price you pay. But it’s not just about property damage or the environment. It’s lives; it’s a human health and wellness issue.”
Dryland armchair critics often blame homeowners for building or buying in flood-prone areas. Dr. Pomeroy says homeowners often are not to blame: Flood forecasting in Canada is uneven or non-existent, maps are outdated and new ones are in progress, and real estate development has run amok while municipal authorities cut ribbons. And climate is changing. Many homeowners flooded twice in recent years were dry for decades before.
In Alberta, two towns, separated by a 50-minute car drive, illustrate what works and what doesn’t in Canada’s patchwork of flood-recovery plans.
The city of High River, with the backing of the province, bought out two entire neighbourhoods at their pre-flood assessed municipal value after the 2013 Alberta floods that killed six people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Six years later, where 150 houses once stood, grass and saplings grow. Governments also spent about $230-million improving flood defences, including berms, dikes and diversion channels.
High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass, elected a few months after the flood, said there was about a 50-50 mix of people willing to leave and others who were forced to go. “It was a very hard decision” to shut down the neighbourhoods, he said. The Alberta government, which bankrolled most of the measures, was “very good” about showing flexibility, he said. It compensated people who had already started repairs on homes that were eventually condemned, for example. “It’s a messy procedure. No two situations are the same. But at the end of the day, I think most people who lived there have moved on,” he said.
Sixty kilometres north, in Calgary, the province opted for a voluntary buyout program. They purchased 17 houses – about one-third of the homes targeted – at a cost of $51-million. The vulnerable residential area of the city’s Elbow River bank is now a combination of vacant lots and high-end homes.
In both cities, developers have already started circling once-flooded land, tempting municipal officials with proposals. “Some people have forgotten what we went through. We can’t continue these asinine development practices,” Mr. Snodgrass said.
The lack of controls on real estate development is but one of the policy failures that have left Canadians in a vulnerable state.
Dr. Pomeroy summarizes other shortcomings. First, a national mapping and flood-forecast system must be put in place. Efforts are under way in some jurisdictions, such as Quebec, where regional councils of municipalities are getting the work done. That information should be publicly available so people know what they are buying, Dr. Pomeroy said. It will also change the worth of properties located on what will be newly designated floodplains.
Next, he says, when considering water-level controls, government needs to shift priorities away from shipping and hydro-electricity production, and toward flood management.
Finally, the country needs a well-funded, federally backstopped program to protect high-risk areas or transform them back to nature. Sometimes the solution may lie in building dikes, other times buying out entire communities. “It shouldn’t always be right after a flood. It should be based on data, a rational examination of options. We’ve kind of muddled along in Canada. That can’t continue,” Dr. Pomeroy said.
The federal government and several provinces including Quebec say they are in talks about a way forward.
New Jersey provides a successful model to emulate, with one of North America’s only permanent buyout programs. Blue Acres, a creation of the state’s Department of Environmental Projection, was set up in 1995 to preserve and reclaim wetlands to mitigate flood damage from rivers and rising tides.
The early work was difficult and ran into hurdles that would presage Canadian flood-recovery efforts. Long delays hampered case settlements and payments. The program pays market value but some people owed more on their homes than settlements provided. A phenomenon known as “disaster amnesia” allowed some homeowners to settle back in to their vulnerable houses.
But the early experiences of the team in the years before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 meant that, when disaster struck, they were well positioned to help effectively, Blue Acres executive director Fawn McGee said.
The program got a massive boost in money and mandate after the storm flooded thousands of people. Blue Acres amassed $322-million in state and federal funding commitments to acquire 1,300 homes. In addition to drawing on lessons learned, Ms. McGee’s program also improved its approach after the hurricane. On top of map-makers, paralegals and project managers, she assigned case managers to shepherd individual owners through the process and bookkeepers to help them sort through expenses. “The case managers on our team will literally sit across the table from them any time day or night to walk them through the process. We make it as easy as possible, we share all the data we have, every appraisal, all the information,” Ms. McGee said.
But the most important cause for success was switching to a community-driven process where local officials and neighbourhood residents invited Blue Acres to town. Case managers often return to homeowners two or three times before they clear out an entire area. Importantly, they pay appraised market-value on the house from the day before Hurricane Sandy hit.
People don’t always get what they want. “As much as someone might want a million dollars for their home, it doesn’t happen,” Ms. McGee said. “We work hard to find a true number.”
A big goal of the program is to increase floodplain-storage capacity. Having holdouts doesn’t help that goal. The program works to cluster homes to avoid the phenomenon of half-abandoned neighbourhoods. Blue Acres has about an 80-per-cent buyout rate in the neighbourhoods they target. As for the remaining 20 per cent, sometimes finding a deal is impossible. Some homeowners have too much debt. Others don’t want to leave or back out of the plan when they find out how expensive a new home will be. “Older folks want to die in their homes and don’t want another mortgage,” she said. But usually after a second or third visit from case managers and a couple heavy rains, holdouts relent. “Once homes are demolished, the community changes,” she said. “Often we’re the ones getting the calls.”
But even carefully executed buyout plans come at high social cost, according to Sherri Brokopp Binder, a psychologist who has studied the effects of postdisaster relocation in the United States. Moving often breaks down the social ties, sense of place and access to services that help people recover from disaster. Mental health and economic outcomes are often measurably worse for people who add the stress of relocating to immediate disaster recovery. “It’s a very heavy decision that goes far beyond money," she said. "We are asking people to give up things that make life meaningful. Relocation may be the only option, but we really haven’t figured out how to do it well.”
But repeated floods take a toll, too. Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, one of the earliest and hardest hit Quebec communities, about 280 kilometres east of Montreal, may be one town ready for a full-fledged buyout program to turn much of its central neighbourhood back into a green floodplain. So far, 754 homeowners have applied for some form of compensation.
Jean-Bernard Gilbert’s bungalow was flooded to about waist-high on the main floor. His cat drowned and his family including two children, aged 6 and 4, are living in a rental cottage. He has had four floods since he bought his house in 2006. His house was worth about $230,000 before the flood, he said, and the municipal evaluation pegs it at around $160,000. If the province offers something close to halfway in between, he’ll take the money and run to higher ground, he said. “I’m done,” he said. “It’s time to go.”
Mr. Gilbert lists off the floods since he bought 12 years ago: 2014, 2018 and 2019, despite his home’s deed, which says he’s in a non-flood zone. “I don’t hear too many of my neighbours who really want to stay,” he said. “The question is, will anyone help us go?”
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