In most of the darkened, inundated and abandoned homes up and down the shores of the Ottawa River, the struggle to hold back the rushing waters is lost. But at the end of a short ride on a raft nicknamed Noah's Ark, one young family is managing to beat back the tide thanks to a mobilization an army would envy.
A sliver of blue cracked through the grey sky Tuesday as floodwaters dropped a few centimetres outside the home of Christian Pepin, Marie-Pierre Chalifoux and their two-year-old son, Noah, who shuttles to the house on the raft named for him. The epic 10-day struggle to preserve their two-storey house is a story of solidarity and ingenuity, but also illustrates how avoiding disaster was all but impossible for most flood victims along these riverbanks.
"It was a 12-round fight, and it's not over," said brother-in-law Olivier St-Denis, who has worked around the clock on the operation to keep the water from filling the basement and reaching the main floor.
Some 232 of 293 homes have been abandoned in this town, 80 kilometres northwest of Montreal, since the first round of flooding started April 17. Richard Allard guides his small motor boat along a once picturesque, now desolate five-kilometre stretch of Rivière du Nord, a tributary of the Ottawa River. On this stretch alone, 75 homes stand in a row, abandoned, with the power cut off and water lapping at each of their riverside doors.
Mr. Allard's family is among the last two or three holdouts along the stretch. He, his wife, Jeanne, and their two adult sons have moved most of the furniture upstairs and propped the rest on large paint cans to gain a little more height in case water rises. "Last Sunday [10 days ago], I was cleaning up the yard from the usual spring flooding. I was going to start fixing the lawn," said Jeanne Allard. "Now, it's underwater. We were fooled."
Up and down these rivers, good humour rules the day. Mr. Allard, 61, called ahead to Ms. Allard to jokingly ask her to clean their besieged house for visitors. "She doesn't want to," he deadpans after hanging up. A man on a pontoon boat cruises past shouting "Water for sale!" On his return trip, he makes a different offer: "House for sale! Waterfront. All four sides."
Georges Paquette has a blue bungalow nearby but he is on dry land after leaving his home several days ago. He's philosophical about his predicament. "That's what you get when you live by a river," he said.
Three kilometres away along the Ottawa River, the Pepin-Chalifoux family are among very few people in Saint-André winning conclusively against the tide so far. They are surrounded by water up to two metres deep, but even the basement and garage are nearly dry thanks to their sandbags, pumps and determination.
The most important factor, Mr. Pepin and Ms. Chalifoux said, is manpower. Neighbours, volunteers and friends, dozens of them, started coming a week ago Monday when Mr. Pepin raised the alarm among his people. For several days, he was running round-the-clock shifts of 20.
"The army showed up – my army," said Mr. Pepin, a surf instructor and tour guide who owns a wakeboard shop in Hawkesbury, Ont., with Ms. Chalifoux. "What really saved us is our friends and neighbours. Friends came from miles around and people who lost their houses down the street were here for us. "
The family had a few other advantages. Built in 2006 and purchased two years ago, their home sits 35-metres back from shore on a small man-made hill. The two-storey home meets 100-year flood specifications as marked by the garage floor where Mr. Pepin's Porsche Carrera restoration project is parked. A few metres away, behind a thick, two-metre sandbag dike, water laps 60 centimetres above the floor.
The house came with a modern sump-pump system with an automatic emergency propane generator. The family has six additional electric and gasoline pumps expelling the water inevitably seeping through their dike. "You can't stop the water, you can only send it somewhere else," Mr. Pepin said. They've dug in pails to protect pumps from mud and clean them regularly.
They have extra generators and pumps on standby. In the finished basement, where the only sign of damage is some warped floor boards, they have a moisture alarm in case the water rises. Some of the equipment was purchased but most of it was brought by friends and those neighbours who have given up. Mr. Pepin's brother, Patrice, is pitching in while his basement is full of water. "It's finished, in both senses," he said.
The dike is a remarkable feat for a band of amateur engineers. They listened to the advice of flood old-timers. Mr. Pepin and his friends found the right no-slip material for sandbags. They started with two-metre-wide base to build a dike with the strength of an elongated pyramid.
They organized their friend work crews to maximize efficiency. They would haul sandbags during the day when municipal crews were dumping sand and volunteers were filling bags at the town depot. They would position them overnight after the sand ran out, taking care to place each sack and then stomp it to pack it in.
So far, it's all holding and on Tuesday evening, the family and a half-dozen exhausted helpers sipped beer while checking the pumps and the dike and counting their good fortune. "I think we'll sleep tonight," Ms. Chalifoux said. "We all need it."