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Rising Richelieu inundates towns south of Montreal

Gerald Racine, the lone resident staying in his his flooded neighbourhood looks out his street in St-Paul-de-I'Ile-aux-Noix, May 6, 2011.

christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

Like Robinson Crusoe on his own deserted island, Gérald Racine stands as a lonely survivor in a neighbourhood turned lagoon. Floodwaters have encircled his home.

All around, neighbours have abandoned their waterlogged houses for dry land. So far, Mr. Racine has resisted.

"It's like the Pacific here," said the transport worker, who hasn't been able to go to work all week. "It feels like a ghost town from the Wild West."

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Up and down the banks of the Richelieu River, swing sets lie submerged, families travel to buy groceries by canoe, and the new normal is seeing Canadian soldiers rumble by in light armoured vehicles.

A vast swath of 20 municipalities stretching south of Montreal toward the U.S. border has been hit by the worst deluge in 150 years. More than 3,000 homes have been inundated and 1,000 evacuated.

One of the hard-hit towns is living up to its name: Venise-en-Québec. All that's missing are the gondoliers.

The catastrophe has brought an otherworldly look to riverside communities. Neighborhoods such as Mr. Racine's, about a 45-minute drive from Montreal, are cut off from roads and rise up like outposts in the sea. Cornfields have turned to lakes and streets into canals. Only those with boats or hip waders venture out into waist-high water.

The army has become a welcome invader. The federal government has deployed troops to the area to help residents with sandbagging and other tasks. "I'm used to seeing our soldiers in Afghanistan," Mr. Racine said. "It's great to have them come help us here."

Although sun replaced rain for most of Friday, that didn't stop the waters from swelling. Quebec's civil security authorities, part of a large deployment of emergency help dispatched to the area, said floodwaters rose again by three centimetres.

For residents, flooding has taken a toll in stress and exhaustion. Micheline Goyette started to cry as she contemplated the damage to her family's summer home, which had about a foot of water in it. Mould and other damage mean she won't want to go there this summer with her grandchildren.

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"That place is full of memories," she said, wiping a tear. "We've been here for 35 years. I don't know if it will be worth rebuilding."

With reports of isolated theft in abandoned homes, police and the army have stepped up boat patrols.

Politicians have also arrived in town with pledges of help. A day after Premier Jean Charest visited the region on Thursday, the province began distributing more than $700,000 to over 200 stricken families. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Quebec lieutenant, Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, toured the area by helicopter on Friday and promised federal support.

The exceptional flooding came as a result of a perfect storm. Melts from an unusually snowy winter in the United States lifted water levels on Lake Champlain, which feeds the Richelieu River. Then, steady precipitation dumped 180 millimetres of rain on Quebec's flooded area since mid-April.

As time goes on, authorities are removing some residents by force. Holdouts are still getting by with sump pumps, rubber dinghies and sleepless vigilance to keep the water out.

Mr. Racine is staying put, watching as the rising deluge inches up toward his front door. "If the water keeps rising, I'll lose everything," Mr. Racine said. "I'm going to stay here until the last minute. Then, who knows."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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