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Opinion The end of natural disasters and the beginning of the new normal

In parts of Quebec last month, homes that normally have cars in the driveway instead had canoes out front tethered to sandbag barricades.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Arno Kopecky is the author of The Devil’s Curve: A Journey into Power and Profit at the Amazon’s Edge and The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway.

Two weeks ago, I flew across the country to see what used to be known as a natural disaster. The pretty brick bungalow in which my mother-in-law, Jane, and her wife, Jacquie, expected to grow old, on the northwest tip of Montreal Island, had come under siege, and they needed help manning the barricades.

There was, and remains, a long line of belligerents pressed up against the sandbags. Most immediate of these was the Lac Des Deux Montagnes, which rose up on April 26 and breached the two-metre retaining wall that normally hems in their backyard. Behind the lake, swelling its assault, is the Ottawa River; behind the river is the vast watershed of the Laurentians, caked with a long winter’s record snowpack; and on top of all that fell the April rains, 150 per cent to 250 per cent above average across the region.

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By the time I flew in from Vancouver on May 3, the deluge had forced 10,000 Quebeckers from their homes, along with thousands more in Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick – but not the two retirees living on Boulevard Gouin Ouest.

They’ve been through this before. The stress of the 2017 flood shaved 15 pounds off Jacquie’s spare frame and pushed Jane into retirement (a family doctor, she’d converted the basement into a clinic that succumbed to the rising groundwater). That perfect storm was described as a once-in-a-century flood. Let’s call this one what it is: the first climate disaster to hit Canada in 2019.

There are factors beyond climate change at play. Chief among them is our relentless expansion of urban and agricultural infrastructure. Each year, we plow and pave over more of the land’s absorptive capacity, forcing ever more rain and meltwater into overburdened arteries and basins. At the same time, we keep building farther into floodplains whose exposure keeps getting worse. Just ask your local insurer, or increasingly, your local level of government – while I was at Jane and Jacquie’s, it was reported that Montreal-area municipalities have new flood maps at their disposal, but are not making them publicly available at this time. Time for some hard talk on liability.

Data Gap: Poor flood-risk maps, or none at all, are keeping Canadian communities in flood-prone areas

Opinion: Climate change is a major factor in flooding – but it’s not the only one

Homes along the Ottawa River flooded dramatically for the second time in three springs in the kind of event that can no longer be called "once in a century".

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

But here’s the thing about climate change: It amplifies every ecological mistake our species ever made. In this case, consider that Quebec’s spring precipitation has increased by 20 per cent over the past fifty years, according to a recent federal report called Canada’s Changing Climate. Under a best-case scenario of aggressive climate action, the same report forecast a further 7-per-cent increase in annual precipitation for the province by 2050.

Jane and Jacquie’s home was built in 1930 as a summer cabin; it had been raised and renovated by the time Jacquie bought it in 1995. As they are painfully aware, it sits on a mini-floodplain – spring has always summoned the prospect of a leaky basement. But it wasn’t until 2017, and then again three weeks ago, that the lake leapt two metres and turned their neighbourhood into a Louisiana bayou.

You could name a dozen contributing factors for how this came to pass. But if you’re looking for a single term that wraps them all together, well, there happens to be one at the ready.

It was still raining when Jane picked me up from the airport. We drove west across a peri-urban landscape that showed no sign of distress whatsoever, until we turned a corner and the road disappeared into black water. From there, we advanced in hip waders, strolling heavily through knee-deep murk. Jane pointed out which of the houses we passed had been abandoned, which were damaged but still occupied and which remained unscathed. These discrepancies, she noted quietly, had not done wonders for neighbourhood unity.

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We reached her own home two hundred metres in. Where the car should have been, a green canoe floated, tethered to the sandbag wall encircling the house. The bags weighed more than sixty pounds each, and there were about a thousand of them, and Jane and Jacquie, who are 71, had built the whole thing themselves. It took them four days. Now water lapped two thirds of the way up, and not a drop had made it through.

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

‘Last year was supposed to be once in a lifetime’: Quebec and New Brunswick brace for new reality of perennial floods

Over the wall, through the front door, and suddenly I was standing inside what felt very much like an anchored ship – whichever window you looked out of, all you saw was water.

“It is a lot like sailing,” Jacquie, fierce and petite, said after we’d hugged hello. “Ninety-per-cent boredom and 10-per-cent panic.”

The primary source of said panic was the prospect of a failed pump. There are five of them running 24/7, and 10 more in reserve. If one of them burned out, the water table was so high that you only had a few moments to replace it before the basement started flooding. In a worst-case scenario – say the power went out and the backup generator failed – it was anyone’s guess how long before the lake knocked the house off its foundation, as happened to the next-door neighbour in 2017.

Jane and Jacquie aren’t sailors, but they had a friend on board who was: Cynthia, 58 years young and brimming with emergency preparedness, had been camped here since the beginning. A connoisseur of weather charts and tidal flows and life-preserving protocols, Cynthia was the resident interpreter of flow-management decisions made by the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, which controls the labyrinth of dams and reservoirs upstream from here. She was going through the latest forecast when I arrived.

“From Mattawa down to Lac Coulonge, levels are expected to begin rising again over the next few days,” she read out. But, “below Lac Coulonge, levels are expected to remain stable or slowly decline.” Then again, “With warmer temperatures, reservoirs in the Abitibi-Timiskaming area are rapidly filling with increased snowmelt runoff. In this part of the watershed, the volume of spring runoff exceeds the capacity of most reservoirs.”

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Jacquie absorbed the prognostication for a long moment before reaching a conclusion. “It’s going up.”

“Yeah,” Cynthia beamed, as though looking forward to some action, “but at least I said it nicely.”

In photos: Flooding affects homes in Eastern Canada

It’s a strange feeling, when something you’ve long dreaded finally arrives. I’ve been waiting for climate change my entire adult life. Now I’m 42, and it’s here. The fires, floods and hurricanes battering North America these past few years, more fierce and frequent than ever before in recorded history, are precisely what climate science has been predicting since before I was born. Of course, the symptoms have been apparent for some time. But for those of us cocooned in cities, it’s been harder to perceive. To feel. Not any more. It’s no longer a question of arcane data telling us sea levels are rising by 1.5 millimetres a year, or that global temperatures have risen 0.8 to 1.2 degrees since 1850. It’s the smoke in your face, the canoe floating in your driveway. Soon, it’ll be the climate refugee next door.

The United Nations predicts that there will be up to 200 million such refugees by 2050. Jane and Jacquie would be the first to say that there’s no comparison between the two of them and the twenty million Bangladeshis likely to be displaced this century – or closer to home, the 2,500 people of Kashechewan First Nation in North Ontario who’ve been forced to evacuate en masse every spring since 2012.

“The moms” have friends and family to help them, enough savings that they’re not going to end up in a soup kitchen or a camp for internally displaced persons. Jacquie’s son lives down the road and was here every day of the emergency. But they’ve been living in this home for almost a quarter-century. It has harboured their marriage, their friends, their children and their grandchildren. They never dreamed of leaving.

Military personnel patrol an area of flooding to look for those in need of help or evacuation in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Quebec, in April 2019.

Cplc Julie Turcotte/34th Brigade Group/2nd Canadian Division/Handout via REUTERS

“I used to look out at the water and see nothing but beauty,” Jacquie told me at one point during the weekend. “But now, I can’t help seeing menace underneath the surface. I see what it can do.”

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The anxiety of what each new spring will bring now clouds the entire year. They’re not getting younger. And yet, how can they leave? Where will they go? The provincial government currently offers homeowners such as them $200,000 to abandon their houses. This is no mansion – it’s 1,300 square feet – but that kind of buyout represents a devastating loss.

While they weigh unsavoury options, the rest of the province, the country and the world are waking up to similar calculations. You may not live on a floodplain, or beside a flammable forest, or know any climate refugees. But your taxes are already being spent on those things. The 2017 flood cost the Quebec government $350-million; this one was worse and will cost more. Canada’s federal disaster-relief fund is now paying out more than $1-billion a year, a fivefold increase from 10 years ago. These numbers barely hint at the magnitude of what’s coming. Back in 2011, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy estimated that by 2050, climate change will cost Canadians between $21-billion and $43-billion a year. Our federal government’s response was to disband the organization.

Eight years on, we’re at a strange juncture in Canada. Polls indicate that most of us are worried about climate change and want something to be done about it, yet over the past couple years, in province after province, we’ve voted in the opposite direction. The federal opposition depicts filling up your gas tank as a patriotic act. Then again, the Green Party’s recent near-victory in PEI, followed by the election of a Green MP across the country in Nanaimo, offers a hopeful counternarrative.

Urgency is in the air. We’ve entered a brief window of opportunity in which abstract climate science is merging with lived experience, while the apocalypse of three-degree warming or worse can still be avoided. Politically, those are good conditions.

This fall, for the first time in Canadian history, climate change will be a central campaign issue in a federal election. While I’m glad to report that Jane and Jacquie are okay, and so is the house, I’m afraid theirs won’t be the last climate disaster to hit Canada before October.

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