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Ottawa River poised to peak amid flooding in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-05-01 CBC/Radio-Canada
a house with trees in the background: A home on Beaumont Farm Road in Bracebridge, Ont., where many homes have been flooded, sinks into the ground after falling from its pilings. © Patrick Morrell/CBC A home on Beaumont Farm Road in Bracebridge, Ont., where many homes have been flooded, sinks into the ground after falling from its pilings.

Severe spring flooding that has forced thousands of residents from their homes in Canada's eastern half refuses to let up in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

Environment Canada has issued heavy rainfall warnings and special weather statements — with a mess of rain, sleet, snow and ice pellets possible across a wide section of the flood zones starting Tuesday night and continuing Wednesday.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said at a news conference in Ottawa Tuesday that there are now 2,600 Canadian Forces personnel deployed across the three provinces, with more on standby. He said about 1,000 of those are in Quebec. 

Another 1,500 have been authorized to be sent to Ontario to help with historic flooding along the Ottawa River and in central Ontario cottage country towns like Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes. 

Annual flooding in the Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario remains a concern. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the vast majority of the 1,600 evacuations in Ontario are from that region, with the remainder mostly from the Ottawa area. 

Late Tuesday, the transport minister announced additional navigational restrictions in flooded areas. Marc Garneau also urged people to stay off all flooded waterways in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick — including those not currently subject to restrictions — to prevent environmental damage. 

a group of people standing next to a body of water: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

While many in these areas have been deploying sandbags to help cope with the flooding, researchers and consultants say they aren't necessarily the best solution.

They say the sacks can be effective in flash floods or other situations where they won't be in contact with water for too long, but sandbags lose their effectiveness as soon as they become saturated with water, meaning they have limited impact during prolonged floods.

Here are the latest developments in each affected region.

Ottawa

Mayor Jim Watson pleaded Tuesday for more people to help with flood-prevention efforts, as water levels are expected to peak in Ottawa-Gatineau on Wednesday.

Some communities along the Ottawa River are already seeing waters higher than they saw in the 2017 flood.

In Constance Bay, to the west, 150 homeowners have been urged to voluntarily evacuate their homes as floodwaters rise around them. Power is being shut off to part of the community on Tuesday evening, said Pierre Poirier, the city's head of emergency management.

Albert Leung/CBC News © Albert Leung/CBC News Albert Leung/CBC News

Approximately one million sandbags are standing between the Ottawa River and residences and businesses in Ottawa, and more are in place across the river in Gatineau, Que.

But they may not be up to the task of holding back the water, which in Ottawa-Gatineau could rise 50 centimetres above 2017 flood levels. Municipal officials in Ottawa don't expect to be near cleanup mode until the Victoria Day long weekend.

Goodale also flagged another source of concern. 

"The water level now in Lake Ontario is just to about its maximum normal run off," he said. "All of that obviously has to flow east. Combining with the flow coming down the Ottawa [River], that presents significant potential issues in relation to Montreal and places further downstream."  

The weather could also make things difficult for those working to shore up properties against the floodwaters on Wednesday. Ottawa-Gatineau and areas to the west as far as Algonquin Park on the Ontario side of the river are expected to get two to five centimetres of snow, mixed with ice pellets, then 15 to 25 mm of rain.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday these extreme weather events will happen more often, and the government is fighting climate change and investing in climate-resilient infrastructure.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada predicts the record flooding will push losses for homeowners from extreme weather to more than $1 billion this year.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in light of record flooding this spring, the federal government is talking with the provinces about investments in disaster mitigation and prevention efforts.

Increasingly, communities are looking at relocating people living in high-risk areas instead of paying year after year to help them rebuild.

Quebec

Officials partially lifted an evacuation order in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que., on Tuesday, allowing hundreds of residents — but not all — to return to their homes. 

The evacuation order was put in place after floodwaters breached a dike Saturday and forced about 6,000 to flee.

Residents who do return home, however, will not have access to potable water or electricity.

Mayor Sonia Paulus said they "will need to present identification and receive clearance before returning home." 

The order excludes a section of Sainte-Marthe that remains submerged. It's unclear when residents in the hardest hit areas might be able to go home.

The island of Montreal and Laval remain in states of emergency, a measure giving authorities the power to seize property and force evacuations, while officials in Quebec say the data available suggests the risk of flooding on several rivers across the province remains high.

An additional 34 local states of emergency are still in effect around the province. 

The province reported over 6,400 flooded homes, a further 3,500 surrounded by water and more than 10,000 evacuees — most of them from Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac.

New Brunswick

The St. John River from Fredericton to Saint John is still above flooding levels, but emergency officials said the river system is expected to recede to near or below flood stage before the week ends.

The entire river basin is steadily declining, according to Greg MacCallum, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (EMO).

EMO is now turning its focus to cleanup measures. Residents, however, are warned to avoid contact with floodwater, which can contain sewage and other waste.

The Trans-Canada Highway remains closed between Oromocto and River Glade, N.B., but the province's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said it could reopen this week.

This is the second year in a row the major highway has closed due to flooding.

Despite the turn in events, strong winds in the forecast remain a concern.

Sajjan visited the Saint John area yesterday to view the activities of military personnel helping in the response effort.

He says if the impact of climate change disasters continues to worsen, he may have to increase the number of Canadian Forces personnel available.

Goodale said 9,200 residences and cottages have been affected by the flooding in New Brunswick, along with another 7,000 buildings. 

Kashechewan First Nation

First Nations leaders called on the Ontario and federal governments Monday to help relocate the community of Kashechewan as it deals with annual flooding — a problem one said would have already been solved if it involved a non-Indigenous population.

Community members rallied on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

The northern Ontario community of 2,500 first flooded in 1976 and has been evacuated annually for the past several years while it waits for the federal government to fulfil its promises to move residents to a permanent new location.

"Both levels of government — Ontario and Canada — has allowed this to be normalized," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Derek Fox. "I believe personally that if these were non-native, non-First Nations people, action would have happened a lot sooner. I sincerely believe that."

a man standing next to a body of water: Giacomo Panico/CBC © Giacomo Panico/CBC Giacomo Panico/CBC

Central Ontario cottage country

The mayor of Bracebridge said he's hoping tomorrow's weather forecast doesn't play out as expected. Environment Canada issued a rainfall warning for the swath of central Ontario that's been struggling to cope with flooding in recent days.

Mayor Graydon Smith said 25 to 30 mm could fall on Bracebridge tomorrow, with the possibility of a little more rain on Thursday. Smith says an additional 60 military personnel are coming to the region today to help with flood conditions, making a total of 160 soldiers in the area.

Four municipalities have declared states of emergency in central Ontario, while further east the Ontario government has activated disaster recovery assistance for the county of Renfrew and the city of Pembroke.

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