Hills escapes flood chaos
by Mary Fahey
The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the May 10, 2017 issue. Reprinted with permission.
While horror stories came pouring in across the region of entire properties, streets, and neighbourhoods being swallowed up by water levels that seemed like they wouldn’t stop rising, the Gatineau Hills have, all things considered, stayed relatively dry.
But for some, it was a matter of inches between them and messy, watery disaster.
Maria Bettencourt and her partner live on one of only a handful of properties in La Pêche affected by the rising levels of the Gatineau River over last week and weekend. Bettencourt’s house on River Road in Wakefield had to be surrounded by tightly packed sandbags, some of which they collected themselves from a farm before municipal workers dropped off bags on May 6, to prevent water coming into her basement; her house is only metres away from the river at the best of times, but with the rainfall and flooding, the river was about 25 to 30 feet closer than usual. After some hard work on her part and that of her partner, as well as from emergency crews in the region, her basement was saved – almost. A couple of inches of water did manage to sneak in, which she’s been pumping out with two small pumps, but nothing of value was stored below ground level.
“We’re not surprised,” said Bettencourt, given that they live so close to the river.
The La Pêche fire department handed out anywhere between 500 and 1,000 sandbags over the weekend, according to the captain of the Wakefield Fire Station crew, Jason Prevost. Prevost said he and his crews worked nearly nonstop to make sure residents were as prepared as possible should the river spill over its shores – water levels on the Gatineau River in Maniwaki where Hydro Quebec was monitoring were a full two metres higher than normal for this time of year. Water levels in the Ottawa River peaked on Monday afternoon and on the Gatineau River in Maniwaki on May 7.
Prevost echoed Bettencourt’s sentiment: given how much flooding places like Gatineau, Gracefield, and Pontiac were subjected to, hey, La Pêche isn’t doing badly. He said we got lucky around here, and he’s glad for that.
“We got it quick and a lot of people got involved fast… We had pretty much all hands on deck,” said Prevost. “I look at Gatineau, I look at Pontiac, other municipalities like Montreal, and they’re not lucky.”
In La Pêche, only two people were displaced due to the flooding, both from the same home on River Road where some water coming in below the house had begun to threaten its electrical systems – Prevost said they had to turn off the power to the house as a precaution, which is why the two were evacuated. No more than five houses, he said, suffered flooding from the river. No one had to be evacuated in the Low or Kazabazua areas and there’s been no significant flooding in those municipalities either, although two residents in Low did need to protect against the rising levels with sandbags. Kaz ordered some sandbags, but they haven’t had to use them yet.
The flood fallout as of May 9:
Gatineau: 449 residences evacuated
Gracefield: 14 residences flooded; state of emergency declared by the municipality on May 6
Maniwaki: three primary residences flooded; 71 senior citizens and 800 students from two schools evacuated as a preventive measure
Papineauville: 16 residences flooded; eight people evacuated
Pontiac: 140 residences flooded; 178 people evacuated; state of emergency extended by five days
Karen Large lives part time on River Road in Alcove. The road runs between the river and her house, and she had been monitoring the levels throughout the raining and flooding. She’d had some flooding in her basement from groundwater, but with water levels rising so quickly, she’d sandbagged her house on May 5 as a precaution, although as of May 8 the river had yet to rise high enough to encroach on the road. She felt it had taken the municipality too long to respond to her requests for sandbags.
“It’s about being afforded the respect to have an option and to have help. If you ask for help and the entire region is under massive flood threat…there’s a lack of respect when you’re not supported,” said Large.
La Pêche Mayor Robert Bussière said he is sorry if residents feel the municipality’s response to the flooding was lacking in any way, but he knows that municipal workers and firefighters were working full-tilt to make sure everyone was looked after. He said he can understand if some are frustrated, but, he said, it’s not a perfect world.
“I think everyone did the very best they could,” said Bussière. “Through it all, I think we reacted well.”
Bettencourt had a cottage on the property by the river for 11 years, so she knew flooding was a real possibility, and when her house was built two years ago, she made sure to keep the threat of flooding in mind. Her place is fully equipped with all the floodproof fixings: the house sits on about five feet of crushed gravel, the foundation is set right in the granite rock as opposed to soft soil, and huge pipes that run with the flow of the river run under the house to divert the flow back into the river. She and her partner are hugely appreciative of the firefighters and municipal employees who helped sandbag their home.
She knows that when you live on a river in the springtime, there are risks. Although this year’s high water level is unlike anything she’s seen in more than a decade, she does feel that the flooding could have been so much worse.
“Everybody’s got water in their basement, but we got it from the river and some people got it from the ground,” said Bettencourt. “We’re fortunate.”
Dam that’s a lot of water
A flood of closures
As flooding devastated parts of Gatineau, the Pontiac, and Maniwaki, even Hills residents who were high and dry were affected by a multitude of closures across the region.
- All federal government workers whose offices are located in Gatineau or who used any of the interprovincial bridges were told to stay home May 8 and 9 to ease congestion during clean-up.
- Hwy 50 in Gatineau was closed May 7, causing severe delays on the Alonzo Wright Bridge between Cantley and Gatineau.
- Transcollines buses remained running May 8 and 9 and offered passengers free rides to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
- Chelsea Elementary, Hadley Junior High, Philemon Wright, and École du Grand-Boisé, as well as Heritage College, were closed May 8 and 9.
- Hwy 105 north of Wakefield, after the rock cut, was down to one lane May 6 as water washed across the road.
- All non-urgent appointments and surgeries were cancelled at the Hull and Gatineau Hospitals May 8.
As the water levels rose, the community came together
by Ben Bulmer
Hills residents watched in horror as television footage showed their neighbours to the north, south, and west wading through waist-high water as flooding gutted houses, causing mass evacuations. With the army moving into Gatineau to help out with the relief effort and around 200 Pontiac residents receiving a mandatory evacuation notice, Hills residents reached out to support their communities.
“I do have the space, so why not offer the room?” Rita Jain told the Low Down. The Chelsea resident posted a message on Facebook offering up room in her house for anyone displaced by the flood. Jain said no one had taken her up on the offer, but told this reporter if the Low Down discovered anyone left homeless by the flood to let them know there’s a place for them to go.
Jain’s Facebook post prompted others to offer shelter for those left homeless by the flood. “I was here in 1974 and I knew the water could get higher,” said Ian MacDonald, who also posted an offer of accommodation on Facebook. Back then, his parents’ Riverside Drive home’s basement flooded, prompting his mother and younger siblings to move out, leaving him and his brother and father to camp out in the flooded house. “You never know when it’s your turn,” he said.
As the rain continued to pour down, Chelsea resident Brad Stewart said he could feel the tension and worry across social media as the river continued to rise. “You could feel the franticness and the fear…it was real existential fear,” he said. Stewart set up a crowdfunding page, with money going directly to the Wakefield Community Emergency Fund, should people in the Hills be affected. “We can let people know that we’re there for them…we’re present, we’re thinking about you.”
Chelseaite Theresa Arsenault also posted on Facebook offering shelter for those in need. “I haven’t had any takers,” she said, “but I have all this extra space.” Arsenault said she’d spent all day May 7 filling up sandbags in Aylmer and had also headed to Luskville to help out with its flood efforts. “The worst I’ve had is a wet basement,” she said, adding, “I can not imagine what it is like for the water to come into your house.”
All three good Samaritans shrug off any notion that what they have offered is out of the ordinary, saying they’re doing their part for the community.
With over 100 millimetres of rain falling over the weekend of May 6 and 7, it wasn’t just humans that needed a helping hand. Marie-Sophie Bourque, owner of Wakefield’s Mlle Petalia pet store, offered temporary shelter for cats, birds, and bunnies. Bourque posted a comprehensive list of volunteers and businesses for pet owners, advising them of where they could take everything from a snake or a spider to a tropical fish. “In case of crisis, we will be there for the pets,” she said.
Staff at the IGA Famille Charles made hundreds of sandwiches for volunteers helping out with the flood in Gatineau and set up drop-off boxes for food donations for those affected by the flood. The store also gave customers the opportunity to donate $2 when purchasing groceries and had collected around $1,000 from the community within a day.
As the rain slowed and the river started ever so slowly to decline, it appears that Gatineau Hills residents largely managed to escape the torrents of water that plagued their neighbours just a handful of kilometres away; but Hills folk showed they were ready and willing to help out no matter what.
To donate to the crowdfunding campaign, go to: www.gofundme.com/wakefield-la-peche-flood-help.
A (lack of) flooding conundrum in Chelsea and Cantley
If there’s flooding to the north of Chelsea, and flooding to the south of Chelsea, why isn’t there any flooding in Chelsea?
It’s a hydrological quandary on both the Ottawa and the Gatineau Rivers that’s confounded residents in Chelsea as well as Cantley for the past several days. According to Wakefielder Meredith Brown, a hydrologist and the Ottawa riverkeeper, the phenomenon is a result of trying to keep water levels as stable as possible along the courses of the river to reduce impact.
“It’s a matter of river hydraulics. With the high speed and volumes going through these dams, for a couple kilometres upstream [of the Chelsea Dam], you get these lower river conditions because they’re moving it through so quickly and they’re not backing it up,” said Brown. “They” are the dam operators – in this case Hydro Quebec – with the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board acting as a coordinator between the various dams. “You can have these backwater effects in excess of 50 kilometres up river… They’re trying to maintain the natural flow that the river would have at flood time.”
Hydro Quebec needed to open the Chelsea Dam to lower the water level in its reservoir – neither the Chelsea Dam nor the Paugan Dam in Low are meant to hold water for very long, unlike the Baskatong reservoir north of Maniwaki, which can move water into the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers to reduce flooding further upstream.
Same month, same flood headlines but year was 1974
The month was May, but the year was 1974 – and the headlines were almost the same: The Flood, Wakefield OKAY.
This week’s flood scare was not the first for the Gatineau Hills. There have been a few over the years, and The Low Down was there to document the last one in the May 23, 1974 edition. “A high old confusingly exciting time was had by everyone living on the Gatineau River last week as spring runoff and rainstorms combined to send water into communities to the north and to the south of the Low Down to Hull and Back area.
“Wakefield Village was placed out of bounds to tourists and travellers by police who erected barricades after the village was evacuated Friday.
“An expected four-foot high crest of water never materialized, but the river rose in easy surges until Highway 11 was awash two feet deep in front of the Alpengruss restaurant on the north side and to a lesser depth at Farm Point.” (How that makes Wakefield ‘okay’ is beyond the current editor’s imagination.) Meanwhile in Chelsea, the river levels were much lower than normal, just as occurred this week.
We went on to report that Mayor Hans Geggie called the village evacuation “non-traumatic” and then later, wearing his other hat as Medical Director of the Gatineau Memorial Hospital, he oversaw the evacuation of the hospital. Geggie also suggested residents with shallow wells boil their water.
On this page: a selection of flood flashback photos, from various years, collected by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.