Allison Hanes: Quebec’s flood crisis could be terrifying new normal

While emergency response is understandably the priority right now, we have to prepare ourselves for a scarier future.

Janick Leblanc pushes off a boat with his brother Stéphane, left, and son Xavier in Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac on Sunday. John Kenney / Montreal Gazette

If home is where the heart is, thousands of hearts around Montreal and across Quebec are breaking as floodwaters rise to unprecedented levels.

Rivers have spilled their banks and are now encroaching on homes in Pierrefonds, Île-Bizard and Ahuntsic, in the city of Montreal, as well as Laval, Rigaud, Lachute, Deux-Montagnes and countless other towns and villages. Homes, and everything their inhabitants hold dear, are threatened. Neighbourhoods are under siege. Basements are swamps of murky water. Yards are vast lakes. And everywhere walls of sandbags, the product of backbreaking human labour, try mightily to hold back the tide. After Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante declared a state of emergency Friday, the possibility of evacuations loom.

The worst happened in Ste-Marthe-sur-Lac Saturday night when a dike was breached and water poured in, forcing residents to flee.

We are at nature’s mercy. Our cities, communities, villages, hamlets, neighbourhoods and rural areas, our highways, roads, bridges and dams, and of course people’s homes, are being inundated.

Where will it end? What will be left when the waters recede? These are the questions that keep exhausted residents on the front lines up at night — and civil authorities on high alert.

Amplifying the fear, worry and helplessness is the fact many of these same folks found their homes in the harm’s way just two years ago. They battled the waters, salvaged what belongings they could, were left dislocated for long periods, struggled financially and toiled physically to rebuild their lives from the ground up after a so-called 100-year flood. Now they might face the same trial all over again. The strain and worry is enough to break any spirit.

Although Pierrefonds borough Mayor Jim Beis says lessons from 2017 and quick action have protected hundreds of homes this time around, the flooding is already worse in some areas and the toll already higher than the calamity of 2017.

We are in uncharted waters. But the really scary part is that this could be the new normal — a terrifying new reality that has long been foretold, but is now upon us.

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world; the Arctic, three times as fast. With climate change comes more extreme weather — hotter, colder, wetter and dryer at different points. And as we experience these devastating effects today around the Island of Montreal, projections suggest things will get worse.

The Climate Atlas of Canada, created by the Prairie Climate Centre, predicts Montreal will see an increase in both winter and spring precipitation. Upstream, Ottawa — where much of the water is coming from and which is also hampered by flooding — faces wetter winters and springs, too.

Federal Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale said Friday the flooding in Eastern Canada — from the Ottawa Valley all the way to New Brunswick — is the “most obvious manifestation” of climate change. He warned it’s something we’re unfortunately going see more of in the coming years.

A report by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in 2017 noted “flooding is currently the most costly hazard in terms of urban property damage,” in Canada. It eclipses fire and theft when it comes to insurance claims, while displacing the population, imperilling critical infrastructure, interrupting business and threatening physical and mental health.

Catastrophe has come to us, rather than striking a distant location in a remote corner of the planet. We are now face to face with disaster. And we have no choice but to try to mitigate the harm, while working to adapt to a stark future. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

Montreal is taking steps to better withstand the consequences of climate change, appointing a new executive committee member and opening a new bureau charged with ecological transition and resilience. Some 330 Quebec municipalities have signed the Déclaration d’urgence climatique and must now put words into action.

Montreal city council and the agglomeration council both held extraordinary sessions in Pierrefonds on Sunday.

Right now the priority is, rightfully, emergency management. But just as crucial will be the measures we undertake in the aftermath, to brace for and blunt the impact of climate change.

These include: protecting our wetlands, watersheds and forests; greening paved areas to prevent runoff and increase soil absorption; changing building codes to create structures better able to withstand rising waters; and altering zoning laws that stipulate where buildings can be constructed. Sometimes nature is itself the best defence against the ravages of nature.

Such efforts may start in municipalities, but much responsibility belongs to the provincial and federal governments. They have more power to curb the emissions that lead to these dire results.

There is much to be done. In the next hours, days and weeks, our efforts must focus on helping those in the flood zone.

We are all in this together.

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