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Canada ‘Severe’ long-term impact seen on rural communities hit by flooding in Eastern Canada

A resident makes his way along Morin Road though floodwaters from the Ottawa River in Cumberland, Ont., on April 30, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

As water levels slowly recede in flood zones across Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, affected regions are bracing for a prolonged crisis-level aftermath.

The good news in the flooded areas Sunday was that water levels generally continued to drop from their peaks last week, though they are expected to remain high for the next two weeks along the Ottawa River. Manon Lalonde, executive engineer with the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, said levels along the river dividing Ontario and Quebec had come down by as much as 39 centimetres from peak levels this year – but in some spots, they were still above highs reached in then-record 2017 floods.

However, she warned that "the potential for additional flooding has not completely gone away,” if warmer weather to the north forces more spring runoff to spill out of swollen reservoirs in Abitibi-Témiscamingue in the next two weeks. Those outflows mean upriver communities from Mattawa to Pembroke should face rising levels early this week, but that shouldn’t affect areas downriver, she said. There could also be a risk of more flooding from heavy rains, although there is no significant precipitation in the near-term forecast.

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Quebec Premier François Legault, left, urged homeowners in floodplains not to rebuild, offering up to $200,000 each to move instead.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec public-security officials said more than 5,300 Quebec residences remained flooded, with the Laurentian and Outaouais regions west of Montreal hit the hardest. Another 500 Ottawa households are flooded out and the Chaudière Bridge linking Ottawa and Gatineau remains closed. Montreal and Ottawa are still in states of emergency.

In Bracebridge, Ont., the last of army reservists – about 200 were on the scene at critical moments over the past week – left the area as the town recovers from severe flooding, which hit rural parts of the community the hardest.

Before and after images show the scale of devastation in flooded parts of Quebec

“We’ve definitely seen the worst of it,” said Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith, adding that control logs have helped to cut off the water flow from nearby dams.

Premier Doug Ford met with Mr. Smith on May 3, and told him the province would commit to creating a task force to investigate a future watershed-management plan for the area.

City of Gatineau spokesman Yves Melanson said the municipality of 284,000 people was “preparing for the next steps.” That includes collecting sandbags once floodwaters subside – officials warn residents that they should not reuse the sand as it will be contaminated – and assessing 60 streets for structural damage. Authorities in flood zones warned residents of secondary threats, including mould, contamination and dangerous debris.

Quebec public-security officials said more than 5,300 Quebec residences remained flooded.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Mr. Melanson said 200 Gatineau homeowners chose not to rebuild after the 2017 flood. Many of the 2,000-plus people evacuated from 980 flooded homes this year will face a difficult decision after assessing the damage in the coming weeks. Quebec Premier François Legault urged homeowners in floodplains not to rebuild, offering up to $200,000 each to move instead.

Liberal MP Will Amos, whose western Quebec riding encompasses many rural communities along the Ottawa River, said “at an individual level, the dramas [for affected residents] are the same” as in bigger cities hit by flooding. But, Mr. Amos said, “at the community level, the effects are far more severe” in rural areas when locals choose not to rebuild. “It has a long-term impact on the community.”

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That worries Joanne Labadie, mayor of Pontiac in Mr. Amos’s riding, where more than 400 residents in 24 riverside communities are still evacuated. “People are in crisis, we’re working with our public-health officials to help them through that," she said, "but I think the worst is yet to come when these people finally get back to their homes and take stock of what they have left.”

After the 2017 flood, 30 Pontiac homes were demolished, causing “bankruptcies and an enormous amount of stress,” she said. An unknown number of cottage owners effectively abandoned damaged properties.

She worried that her municipality of less than 6,000 people could be hit financially if more homes are demolished and cottagers don’t return. “They are an important part of our summer tourism and economy for local businesses, but they’re also taxpayers,” she said.

She said 40 per cent of the municipality’s land base is occupied by Gatineau Park and an equal amount is in an agricultural greenbelt subject to provincial controls. “If the provincial government is going to uproot everybody out of the flood plain, where do you propose I put those people? We’re going to lose them,” she said. “To keep those residents, we need to look at flexibility in rezoning some of that agriculture to be able to accommodate some of these people long term.”

With reports from Vjosa Isai and The Canadian Press

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