Towns and cities along the Richelieu River are on high alert as strong winds force water from Lake Champlain to spill into the river southeast of Montreal.
Southerly winds reaching speeds of up to 80 km/h on Monday pushed water levels higher than the all-time record set on May 6.
Rain and wind have been causing the river to rise steadily since Sunday with some areas along the shoreline going up four centimetres, while others have seen the water rise as much as 10 centimetres.
At 10 a.m. ET Monday, France-Sylvie Loiselle, a civil security spokesperson for the Montérégie region, said the river was just seven centimetres shy of the record.
She added the levels would come down quickly as winds died down. But water could rise another 20 centimetres overnight.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who was in the region again Monday, said the number of soldiers helping with the relief effort will double to about 500.
As many as 3,000 homes have been flooded and nearly 1,000 people have been forced out since the flooding began five weeks ago.
Charles Leblanc said he’s worried about losing his house as he stands in rainboots watching catfish swimming in his front yard in the town of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu.
“Our terrain has been submerged with water for like a month now,” he said. “The more we are flooded, the more we have damage to our house.”
Upriver in the town of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the only way to get to Nadine Galipeau’s house on O’Cain Street is to walk through knee-high water. Her front door is blocked by sandbags.
Galipeau has been watching water from the river stream into her now-gutted basement for weeks and she’s taken a leave from her job as a teacher to properly monitor her house.
“It’s never ending, we’re fed up and we’re feeling helpless,” she said.
Mayors ask that flood law be revised
During a tour of the region on Saturday, Charest said that, so far, the provincial government has spent about $4 million to help flood victims.
Charest also said the government is considering increasing the compensation amount it gives to flood victims, which is currently capped at $150,000.
Local mayors want Quebec to consider revising something else: its law on flood zones.
In 2007, Quebec adopted a law preventing people from rebuilding if they live in a 0/20 flood zone said Sylvain Latour, head of the mayor’s cabinet in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
It means the house is at risk of flooding within 20 years, explains Latour.
He confirms 2,200 homes in his municipality have been inspected, so far, and about 100 are so badly damaged they may have to be torn down.
Some of those homes are in the 0/20 zone.
“The mayors are asking to sit down with the government this week … to allow people to rebuild with restrictions,” he said.
“For example, elevated homes or no basement,” said Latour.
Gerard Dutil, mayor of St-Paul-de-l’Île-aux-Noix, said half his town’s homes have been damaged by water and some 200 houses have had to be evacuated.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “They travel by boat to get to work, they travel by boat to send their kids to school and to get the groceries.”
Dutil also hopes any homes that have to be torn down can be rebuilt.
“Whatever decision [is] taken [I hope] it is not going to have the effect of those people moving out of our municipality,” he said.
“We need those people… and we should take a decision that will allow them to stay there.”
The regional director of Quebec’s civil security service, Yvan Leroux, said there is concern now about the mental health of flood victims.
“We know the situation has been difficult and that it can lead to stress and exhaustion,” he told reporters.
Leroux said health officials and counselling services are in place to help residents cope.
Posted: May 26, 2011 11:03 AM ET
Last Updated: May 26, 2011 9:51 PM ET
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People living along the Richelieu River in the Montérégie region, south of Montreal, were on high alert again Thursday, as heavy rain and winds swept through the area’s vast flood zone.
After a few days’ respite, southerly winds were pushing water levels on Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River up by two to five centimetres, civil protection officials said.
Yvan Leroux said 50 millimetres of rain were expected in the next 24 hours and the showers would continue, meaning 75 millimetres could fall by Sunday.
“By Sunday we could reach levels comparable to those we had on May 6 and May 23,” he said, referring to days when flooding was at its worst.
Officials said water levels in the rivercould rise by as much as 25 centimetres on Thursday.
More than 3,000 homes are flooded, and 1,000 people displaced as high water levels have persisted throughout most of May, with water levels fluctuating over the four weeks.
Floods wearing people down
Although continually under siege, residents of the area aren’t giving up, health officials say.
The head of psychological services at the Haut-Richelieu-Rouville health and social services centre acknowledged the situation is weighing heavily on residents.
“People are increasingly sad,” said Ruth Sanscoucy. “They have less and less hope. But at the same time, people are telling us that everyone has a lot of resilience.”
Past experiences contribute to that, she noted. “The people of St-Jean have already experienced the ice storm [in 1998],” she said.
“This is the second disaster they’re facing and despite some serious difficulties for some people, people are saying we’re not giving up, we know that people are supporting us and we will get past this.
“People have extraordinary inner strength,” she said. The centre’s 12 to 18 counsellors meet an average 100 to 150 victims per day.
Soldiers to stay for a few days
Defence Minister Peter MacKay visited some of the hardest hit towns in the Richelieu Valley flood zone Wednesday afternoon.
He promised that some 500 soldiers on site would not be withdrawn for at least a few days.
The minister would not however commit to soldiers staying on in the region to help with the cleanup.
MacKay said the federal role is limited to protecting people during the emergency phase of disasters.
Residents critical of Ottawa’s response
Local residents and mayors have criticized the timing of federal help during the flood crisis.
A Léger Marketing poll, commissioned by Agence QMI, asked 756 adults over the Internet to rate how both the provincial and federal governments have dealt with the flooding.
Seventy per cent of those polled said the federal government’s help was insufficient, while 56 per cent said the Quebec government has not done enough to help residents.
The margin of error on the poll done Wednesday is plus or minus 3.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
‘I think it’s important enough that the military stay here to help people through.’—Jacques Desmarais, mayor of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu
The most common complaint from residents is an alleged comedy of errors involving the military: they say the Canadian Forces arrived too late, appeared unprepared once they arrived, began withdrawing too early and, now, are failing to help with the cleanup.
Some have even suggested the reason that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has visited other disaster sites, in Manitoba and Alberta, and bypassed this one is because Quebec voted overwhelmingly for the NDP in the last election, and not Harper’s Conservatives.
One local mayor said residents had been struggling for weeks and were tired. He said he couldn’t understand why the federal government wouldn’t let soldiers stay to help cleanup.
“It’s been a month,” said Mayor Jacques Desmarais of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu. “People are exhausted and there’s still work to do: cleaning, inspections and different types of activities.
“I think it’s important enough that the military stay here to help people through.”
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae also criticized Ottawa’s response.
“You’ve got to respond in as effective a way as possible and not be drawing these pretty artificial lines about when does the crisis begin and when does it end,” Rae said Thursday.