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One dead in floods as Quebec, Ontario residents question government response

Ile Mercier covered in floodwater is seen on the Riviere des Prairies on the north part of Montreal on Monday. The bridge leading to the island is closed with its residents evacuated.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

At 92, Second World War veteran Al Curl never imagined he'd have to sleep on an army cot again. But caught by a sudden rise of floodwaters outside his suburban Montreal home, the former military airman had to bed down in an emergency shelter under a scratchy wool blanket.

"This reminds me of when we landed in Holland – all we had were bunks and blankets," the Montreal-born veteran said Monday in a community hall in Île Bizard. Mr. Curl had his cane by his side and an overnight bag with clothes and toiletries at his feet. His wife, Ghyslaine, put her cot next to his so the two could sleep side by side.

After weeks of slowly building floodwaters followed by a weekend spike that broke dikes and triggered mandatory evacuations, officials say most of the Quebec and Ontario waters have finally stopped rising. At least 1,940 Quebeckers like the Curls have abandoned their homes along with hundreds of Ontarians. In Quebec alone, at least 2,733 homes are damaged by water, civil authorities say.

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Guide: Floods in Quebec and beyond: What's the damage so far?

In Photos: Exhausted residents fight rising floodwaters in hard-hit Quebec

Campbell Clark: Canada is bad at organizing flood relief, but it doesn't have to be

Quebec Provincial Police said late Monday that the body of Mike Gagnon, 37, of Saint-Anne-des-Monts, was recovered about 500 metres from where a strong current pulled the car toward the Sainte-Anne River in eastern Quebec on Sunday.

A two-year-old girl who was also in the car has not yet been found. A ground and air search will resume early Tuesday to try to find her.

The mother of the child escaped. The family was trying to help stranded people, police say.

Water levels in the lakes and tributaries of the St. Lawrence River system stabilized Monday and even started to recede in some cases. But Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux warned flood-stricken residents of the regions near Ottawa, Montreal and more than 165 other municipalities to the east that while the waters rose quickly, they will take days and weeks to drain away.

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"It's going to take time before the situation returns to normal," Mr. Coiteux said. "We've seen remarkable acts of kindness and generosity. We will need more."

The first signs of receding waters showed Monday afternoon in Gatineau, in the National Capital Region, where the Ottawa River system absorbed enormous amounts of spring melt boosted by record-breaking spring rains.

In Constance Bay, on the Ontario side of the river about 45 minutes west of Ottawa, orange sandbags lined a riverfront road where water rose to door level. Cars sat immersed in driveways and residents used boats to access their houses. About 250 homes are believed to be damaged, said Heather Lucente, who is helping to co-ordinate volunteer efforts in the town of about 2,300 people. Some 850 volunteers signed up to help with sandbagging and other efforts, she said.

The local legion was filled with emergency supplies and trays of sandwiches, cupcakes and bottled water. Sean McCarthy, the disaster manager, said the community is now focused on cleanup.

"As the water recedes, that's when we start to see the ugliness and the damage," he said.

Sandy Zhang, 50, and Honggao Ji, 54, who own a local grocery store and restaurant, said water started leaking into their riverfront home on Wednesday, and is now about a metre deep on the first floor. They bought their house last August after moving to Constance Bay in 2014.

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"I'm really sad for my house," Ms. Zhang said. "It makes me so heartbroken."

While he praised the work of the volunteers, Mr. Ji said it wasn't a well-organized effort. "They don't really know what to do."

To the east, Montreal's distant western suburbs of Rigaud and Île Bizard have waged a weeks-long struggle against spring flooding but faced a sudden crisis when water levels spiked on the weekend.

In Île Bizard, the Curls shared a room with dozens of other evacuees and washed with the cold water from the centre's bathroom. "It's a bad situation and I hope it will end soon," Mr. Curl said. "I was upset to leave my home. Now, I just want to go back."

The Curls were among dozens of families ordered from their homes in response to a dramatic rise in floodwaters Sunday after water began filling their basement and the electricity was shut off. The couple was taken out by firefighters in a motor boat and brought to safety.

The scene they left behind shows a community's struggle against the water. Sections of Île Bizard are submerged – streets turned into rivers, homes surrounded by fortifications of sandbags, army vehicles and fire trucks patrolling the streets.

The Mayor of Île Bizard, Normand Marinacci, estimated that 150 homes, many of them mobile homes, were evacuated. Firefighters were also going door to door to check carbon-monoxide levels caused by the use of generators.

Ian Ritchie, operations chief for the Montreal Fire department, said the flooding was reminiscent of the 1998 ice storm – a crisis that began slowly then reached a critical tipping point.

"In the same way, this started gradually and then it hit – for a couple of days it wasn't bad, then suddenly it went from bad to terrible."

Not everyone was ready to evacuate their house.

Emmanuelle St-Denis peered out of her living room window like a lonely castaway. Empty houses stood on either side of her. Outside, water enveloped her 19th-century home. But Ms. St-Denis and her husband, Keith Wilson, have stayed behind and built a dike of plywood and sandbags, struggling to resist the tide.

"I feel stranded," she said. She sent the cat, Lily, to live with friends. "But if I leave, I can't be sure it won't get worse."

The couple has set alarms for every two hours to check for flooding. They have moved their furniture to the top floor and have pumps operating around the clock. Neither has been able to go to work since Thursday.

"We're exhausted," she said.

Further east, the Montreal suburb of Pierrefonds was among the hardest areas hit. Major thoroughfares and one of two freeways leading off the Island of Montreal to the west were closed over concerns about the integrity of a major bridge.

The floodwaters reached within 10 kilometres of the summit of Mont-Royal, the mountain in the heart of Montreal. Cousineau Street north of the mountain was lined with sandbags in an attempt to keep water in the street and out of a couple of dozen threatened homes after a dike along a small river gave way Sunday, causing a sudden flood.

Patrick Lalonde managed to scrounge equipment including a precious gasoline-powered pump from friends outside of town to keep water from overwhelming his home. He was in the middle of a lunch break and an interview when he noticed the jet of water pumping from his house was no longer visible. He scrambled back to get his pump going again.

Robert Darakji had given up on his house, a newer construction with a blessedly high three-metre basement after the electricity was cut off and his pumps stopped working. Water rushed in through the sewer system and appeared to stabilize 30 centimetres below the main floor.

"The water never came in from outside, it all came from inside the house," Mr. Darakji said as he worked to keep a few inches of water in the basement of his rental property up the street from turning into a problem.

As the waters started to subside, officials at all levels of government began to face questions about the response. Could the army have been called in earlier? Did officials underestimate the effects of recent rains? Did the dams along the river system hold back enough floodwaters? Who will pay for all of this?

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said it's too early to get into which branches of government will cover costs but he vowed the province's disaster recovery fund will not lack for money.

Mr. Couillard said the system of dams controlled by the province, Hydro-Quebec and the federal government held back as much water as possible without threatening the integrity of the dams.

"The last thing you want is water to go over the dam instead of through it," he said as he toured several flooded Quebec regions Monday. "I can understand how people feel. If it was my home I'd feel the same way.

"There will be difficult moments when people go back to their homes."

Provincial officials also said they called in the army as soon as the threat was fully understood Friday.

Within hours of receiving a formal request from the Quebec government on Friday, the Canadian Armed Forces deployed 1,300 troops to four staging areas in the province: St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Shawinigan, Laval and Gatineau. The total deployment is expected to number 1,650 military personnel at its peak this week as the CAF helps civilian authorities to distribute sandbags, protect dikes and walls of protection, supply shelters and maintain traffic on critical arteries.

In Ottawa, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said it was too early to decide who will pick up the tab for the federal assistance, insisting the only preoccupation at this point is to protect the affected members of the public.

Mr. Goodale added all levels of governments will review the response once the flood waters have subsided, to see whether the troops should have intervened earlier.

"We will examine whether the present procedure and protocol is appropriate in all circumstances," Mr. Goodale said at a news conference. "Right now, the important things are to make sure that the services and supports are delivered to the greatest possible effect."

On Cousineau Street in Montreal, frustration is already starting to set in. Several residents said they tried to call the city for guidance only to get busy signals. Mr. Darakji said he called the Public Security Ministry a few days ago but nobody has called back.

With files from Daniel Leblanc and The Canadian Press

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About the Authors

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

National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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