Preparing for the 2020 spring freshet

By Jake Davies - West Carleton Online

(Editor’s note: please be advised there will be photos from the 2019 flood published in this story. We have provided this story free of charge as a great example of the importance of community journalism, created by an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience, who also grew up in West Carleton. Subscriber-powered journalism means our readers are who we work for. Please consider subscribing to West Carleton’s first, and only, daily-publshing media service for only $50 a year.)

From left, Willola Beach residents Kayso Thompson, 9, Landon Dods, 9, Colton Dods, 11 and Keifer Thompson, 8, volunteered their Easter Sunday transporting sanbags to homes along the Ottawa River. Photo by Jake Davies
From left, Willola Beach residents Kayso Thompson, 9, Landon Dods, 9, Colton Dods, 11 and Keifer Thompson, 8, volunteered their Easter Sunday transporting sanbags to homes along the Ottawa River. Photo by Jake Davies

WEST CARLETON – Easter Sunday, 2019, West Carleton Online publisher Jake Davies was shoveling sand at the emergency flood station in Willola Beach.

There were about 25 other volunteers working at the station – either filling sandbags, holding sandbags, tying sandbags or transporting sandbags. Kanata-Carleton MP Karen McCrimmon was holding and tying the sandbags I was filling. Her husband Rob was there too. Coun. Eli El-Chantiry was filling sandbags, coordinating food and fielding questions.

The rest were Willola Beach residents, one of several, small unofficial villages in West Carleton – there’s no road sign, but it is its own community, with its own community association, the Willola Beach Property Owners Association founded in 2004. Volunteers were as young as nine and as old as seniors. All pitching in and working their fastest. In just a couple of hours of shoveling, the fast-rising water was noticable.

Willola Beach resident Dave McKay told West Carleton Online at the time, if the flood was only as bad as 2017 – the worst flooding in West Carleton history at that time – they would be okay. Instead, it would be much, much worse.

The official alarm hadn’t been raised yet, but that Easter Weekend, the most devastating flood to hit West Carleton in its history was picking up steam.

The first week of April, West Carleton Online was sharing stories on where flood resources such as sandbags were available in West Carleton. The media outlet had been publishing flood prognostications from subject matter experts calling for high water since February, 2019.

The City of Ottawa declared a state of emergency April 25, 2019. It wasn’t lifted for seven weeks, on June 12, 2019. During that time, and a bit before and a bit after, much of West Carleton’s riverside communities were deep under water.

“It makes 2017 look like a practice run,” Constance Bay resident and West Carleton Disaster Relief (WCDR) board member Angela Bernhardt told West Carleton Online from the Constance Bay headquarters for West Carleton’s fight against the flood on May 1, 2019.

Fast forward
Last spring's record-destroying flooding of the Ottawa River topped this year's Top 10 Canadian weather stories. Photo by Jake Davies
Last spring’s record-destroying flooding of the Ottawa River topped this year’s Top 10 Canadian weather stories. This photo was taken in Vydon Acres in May, 2019. Photo by Jake Davies

CONSTANCE BAY – We are now seven weeks out from Easter Monday, 2020. Easter Weekend is one week earlier this year, regardless the spring freshet could begin anytime in April. There are mixed messages out there. Things don’t look good at the Great Lakes. Lake Ontario is currently higher than it was at this time last year. Officials say, despite letting a record amount of water out through the Moses-Saunders Dam, a record amount of water is flowing in to Lake Ontario, which as of Feb. 10 sits at 17.8 centimetres higher than the previous year.

Things look better up north with the snowpack. Last year at this time there was an estimated 4.5 to seven feet of hard-packed snow over 90 per cent of the entire basin. This year there is about four feet covering around 40 per cent of the basin, with the rest at two to three feet.

In West Carleton, several people and organizations are already mobilizing, preparing for any eventuality as the spring freshet approaches.

West Carleton Online spoke to several government and non-government organization representatives for this story. We were able to interview Mayor Jim Watson, Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, MP Karen McCrimmon and West Carleton Disaster Relief director of flood relief and Constance Bay resident Heather Lucente.

West Carleton Online sent an interview request to Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MPP John Yakabuski, on Feb. 5, but did not receive a reply.

West Carleton Online sent an interview request to Kanata-Carleton MPP Dr. Merrilee Fullerton on Feb. 24. We did receive a reply and sent Dr. Fullerton some of the questions we wanted to ask in a further email. Her office refused our request.

“On behalf of MPP Fullerton, thank you for the request,” the MPP’s constituency assistant wrote in reply on Feb. 24. “There is no comment at this time from MPP Fullerton. The provincial government is working with both levels of government on this issue. The municipal government is responsible for flood preparedness and response.”

Getting ready for the 2020 spring freshet
From left, Mayor Jim Watson, Ward 5 Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, WCDR member Alex Charron, WCDR co-president Alex Lesnick, WCDR member Judy Makin, WCDR member Angela Bernhardt, WCDR member Pam Ross, WCDR member Laurie Chauvin, Hydro Ottawa's Bryce Conrad and WCDR member Allan Joyner pose for a photo after receiving the Community Builder Award at the United Way gala last Thursday. Courtesy United Way
From left, Mayor Jim Watson, Ward 5 Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, WCDR member Alex Charron, WCDR co-president Alex Lesnick, WCDR member Judy Makin, WCDR member Angela Bernhardt, WCDR member Pam Ross, WCDR member Laurie Chauvin, Hydro Ottawa’s Bryce Conrad and WCDR member Allan Joyner pose for a photo after receiving the Community Builder Award at the United Way gala last year. Courtesy United Way

CONSTANCE BAY – Last Saturday (Feb. 22), around 20 volunteers from WCDR were canvassing Constance Bay. They were going door-to-door, checking on residents, providing information and important contacts and seeing how people are feeling and how they are preparing, just in case.

“It was kind of a bit two-fold,” WCDR director of flood relief Heather Lucente told West Carleton Online last Monday (Feb. 24). “We wanted to check on people’s readiness for the 2020 freshet but we keep finding residents that are really struggling from last year’s flood and don’t know about the supports that are available. We want to make sure people aren’t falling through the cracks. There is a lot of confusion out there. A lot of people who can’t really afford repairs even with disaster assistance.”

Saturday was the organization’s first canvas, but is rounding up volunteers (and if you can help you can contact them here) to help reach all the other communities hit hard by the 2019 flood in the coming weeks. They are having conversations with those who are home and leaving door hangers with lots of information for those who aren’t.

It’s hard for a community to prepare for a possible disaster when they are still recovering from the last one – a  fact well known in West Carleton after record (at the time) flooding in 2017, a tornado in 2018, followed by record-smashing flooding in 2019.

“Unfortunately, there are a large amount of people that are behind,” Lucente said.

The WCDR is also distributing a survey for flood-affected residents. They are trying to get a handle on where the flood-affected community is at, which will help WCDR focus its priorities. The WCDR also wants to make sure they have as many affected residents on their mailing list as possible. As of Monday, Lucente says they have received about 100 respondents. She hasn’t gone through them in deep detail, but the quick scan has provided some important feedback.

“Quite a number that haven’t begun repairs from last year,” she said. “We want to make sure we can reach people and send them key information. This spring doesn’t look as high risk, but the Great Lakes are high and who knows if there will be torrential rainfall this spring?”

Also facing challenges is the WCDR volunteer base. This incredible, award-winning volunteer disaster response organization has been constantly working since it formed. In 2017 the volunteer organization Constance Bay Flood Relief was created in response to the 2017 flood. Lucente was a key member of that organization. Then in 2018 WCDR was formed to respond to the tornado. Many board members and tireless volunteers from Constance Bay Flood Relief took key positions with WCDR. The WCDR was still heavily involved with tornado relief when the 2019 spring flood hit. What was originally formed as a one-time relief organization has now been working steady coming up on four years, while dealing with three natural disasters and the fallout from those disasters in that time. Their website is split in two depending on which disaster you are recovering from.

“It’s been challenging for our volunteer base,” Lucente said. “We had a real drop off over the fall and winter, but our team is invigorated. We didn’t really have a lot of information at that time and didn’t really know how many people were still struggling.”

Survey results are helping the WCDR build a case for help to bring to the government stakeholders.

“I think we have a case to bring to the government to see if they can re-look at their support,” she said although adding, they are not at that point yet. “We want to make sure we support the residents and know how we can support them moving forward.”

The WCDR is planning on hosting a public meeting related to these issues sometime this coming spring.

“Instead of finding less people, we are finding more people struggling and we find we’re having to step up, not step back,” Lucente said. “We are really feeling that people are really nervous. They’re following reports and things look positive, but that high water with the Great Lakes is making them nervous.”

MP Karen McCrimmon was one of those Saturday morning canvassers. She brought 10 of her own volunteers to help with the Constance Bay Canvas. She’s confident, if the need arises, stakeholders will have a much-improved response to extreme flooding.

“The city is switched on,” she said. “They are paying attention and I think that helps a lot. And we’ve learned a lot over the last three years and especially talking to WCDR. They’re amazing. That’s an amazing group of volunteers that put themselves out there in the service of their communities and we’ve reached out to them and told them, let us know what you need, and that’s what yesterday (Feb. 24) was. They said we need volunteers to go door-to-door. We came up with 10 of our volunteers, that are normally my doorknockers, and we went around knocking on doors around here in Constance Bay to try to identify who’s still struggling? Who still has issues? Where are we before the spring freshet hits?”

West Carleton Online spoke with McCrimmon, who was volunteering at the 14th annual Old Sled Run, shortly after the classic snowmobiles began their journey.

MP Karen McCrimmon says the federal government is looking at a low-cost flood insurance option. Photo by Jake Davies
MP Karen McCrimmon says the federal government is looking at a low-cost flood insurance option. Photo by Jake Davies

“These are traumatic events in people’s lives, we know that they are,” McCrimmon said in the Branch 616 Legion Hall – a place that served as a respite, wellness centre and place for a hot meal for months during the 2019 flood. “Whether you are talking post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s there. It will always be in the back of your brain. And it will take a while for that to go away. So, we have to keep an eye on people. Who has suffered in the past? This spring will bring back some bad memories. So, we have to have these conversations.”

Helping with the canvassing gave McCrimmon, who is also a Constance Bay resident, a front-row look at how people are feeling, what they are thinking and where they are at leading up to the spring freshet.

“I think what a lot of people are doing is paying attention,” McCrimmon said. “We’ve asked for reports to come back from (ministry of) natural resources. Where are we? It sounds better this year then it was last year. The snowpack in Algonquin Park is a lot less this year than it was last year. Also, when we have days like this (Feb. 23) and we get a melt, it’s a huge help as well. But there’s no guarantee. No one can say yes or no. But it certainly looks better this year than it does last year. There are still some concerns with last year. There are still some outstanding claims. The kind of length of time, and I know the government doesn’t always move quickly, I don’t want to point fingers, we need to get these things addressed. Concerns about some people whose homes weren’t completely flooded, but the crawl space was flooded, and they are not sure what that is going to mean. Who gets in to some of these crawl spaces and make sure there isn’t mold? They’re living in their homes but they are still not 100 per cent confident and so we’ve taken note of that and we’re going to see who we can find to get in to that so residents are doing what’s best for their health and their home.”

McCrimmon says she’s also working in parliament to help with flood mediation.

“One of the things we are working on in the background is a low-cost flood insurance,” McCrimmon said. “That was in our platform and I am working with Minister Blair (Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair) and I am saying, ‘listen, it’s got to be in this budget, it’s got to be open to not only homeowners, but landlords and businesses so people have the confidence to rebuild and continue to keep these communities flourishing.’”

City ready, just in case
More volunteers will be needed Saturday and Sunday. Photo by Jake Davies
Coun. El-Chantiry says he would like to move potential sandbagging operations to one site in Carp if the need arises this spring. Photo by Jake Davies

GALETTA – Like MP Dr. Merrilee Fullerton said in her office’s curt reply to West Carleton Online’s interview request, “the municipal government is responsible for flood preparedness and response.”

Both Coun. Eli El-Chantiry and the mayor think the city is as ready as it can be.

“We can always learn from the past, and there are ideas being discussed, like how we can get the sand distributed faster and more efficiently, what else has to be done in terms of property owners and getting their property prepared,” Mayor Jim Watson told West Carleton Online from City Hall on Feb. 18. “I haven’t heard what the predictions are for the snow. We have less snow, I understand, this year than we did last year, which is a good thing, but winter is not over yet.”

The mayor says issues like this aren’t just discussed in spring.

“We obviously communicate year-round, not just when the spring comes, because we know we have had two very severe flooding incidents in the last three years,” Watson said. “So, we’re well beyond talking about the one-in-100-year flood unfortunately. We are going to have to be more resilient in terms of our infrastructure and preparing both as governments and as people.”

Mayor Watson says he has appointed Coun. Eli El-Chantiry as the frontman for this year’s spring freshet. He feels El-Chantiry’s boots-on-the-ground experience makes him the best person for the job.

Coun. El-Chantiry spoke with West Carleton Online last Monday (Feb. 24) in Galetta where he was attending a community meeting.

“We are preparing ourselves,” he said. “Some of the things we learned last time. As you know, every time there’s an event in the city, we huddle together and lessons learned, you know. One of the areas we really need to focus on, we are really trying to manage, is how we dispatch. Because we have the mapping now from Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority we know, if we get 100 calls, we know which house should go first. Where the lowest points are, which houses are the most vulnerable homes. So, we have all that information. First responders have it, the city has it, we all have it. So, we are prepared with that.”

El-Chantiry says much thought has been put in to sand distribution as well. Last year, sandbagging stations were erected ad-hoc, where community members felt they were needed, close to flood-affected communities. Constance Bay had several dotted all over the village. Many of the early stations ended up getting flooded as time passed and water rose. El-Chantiry likes the idea of one central distribution area better.

“I think what I want to put some effort on is to move the sand to Carp, and have it done at the arena at Carp,” he said. “So, you dump the sand in the arena in Carp and it stays dry, people don’t have to get wet. If you remember when we were sandbagging in the rain, it was not fun. It was heavy, you get tired fast, you don’t have the facilities. The sand can be delivered to the arena, it can be sandbagged there, and then be delivered from there, knowing we know where the critical spots are. From 600 to 900 Bayview Drive, that’s the lowest point in Constance Bay. We know the seven homes in Armitage that are the lowest. Fitzroy Harbour, MacLaren’s Landing, Willola Beach, so we give those places priority. We are prepared. We have sandbags ready, we have sand that has not been used yet. We figure if we sandbag in a place like Carp, we can have the high school students help us. Last year, they were the fastest packing sand ever. Instead of taking the kids to the jobsite, and worry about their safety, we brought the sand to them. We have refreshed our list in terms of priorities.”

El-Chantiry says he has spent the winter working on this file.

“So, I spent most of the winter talking about this with the staff, I met with the community, my best hope and my only wishes and prayers are that we don’t have a flood,” El-Chantiry said. “But if we do, I like to think we are prepared. I have put my staff and the emergency response team on notice and next week we are meeting with the mayor (Jim Watson) to brief him. To be honest, the mayor said to senior management, ‘I’d like to let Eli manage this file.’ If I need any support, I can go to him but he said, ‘you have the most experience on the ground.’  As far as operational and management, sandbags the quality, quantity, all that, I can assure you it will be available to all of us. We have more detectors to tell us if there is going to be another flood established by other agencies and by the city, so we will know ahead of time how the freshet is going to happen. Instead of three days’ notice, now we have, I think, up to 10 days’ notice. So, we’re moving along.”

While the infrastructure is in place, El-Chantiry is also concerned about the mentally traumatic nature of events like this – a theme that has come up with everyone West Carleton Online spoke to this issue about.

“There’s one issue I’m trying to bring attention to, but it has a stigma, and that is the PTSD from the flood,” he said. “I’m trying to work with the Public Health Office to assign a Public Health Nurse to our area. They know the area, they know the people, they have a way to communicate. So, we’re asking our community if they have any concerns, issues and want to speak to someone, we’ll do the connection. I hope people will take us up on that offer. Someone asked me ‘is there anything that keeps you up at night?’ I said, yeah, another flood. So, if I feel that way, I’m sure other people feel that way. It’s okay to call and talk to us and I hope people will take it – it’s a free service, a city service that is available.”

El-Chantiry says the city is as ready as it can be.

“We are ready, we are prepared, and if I can put a shout-out to the mayor for his trust, he made it clear to the senior management team, I don’t have to get him a lot of details, he’s leaving it in my hands,” El-Chantiry said.

Winter an opportunity missed
MP Cheryl Gallant, on the right with MPP Dr. Merrilee Fullerton at last Tuesday's flood meeting in Constance Bay, is requesting the federal government provide funding for those affected by the flood. Photo by Jake Davies
MP Cheryl Gallant, on the right with MPP Dr. Merrilee Fullerton at flood meeting last year in Constance Bay. Photo by Jake Davies

GALETTA – While the levels of government each feel they are prepared for a spring freshet, according to Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, they don’t seem to be prepared to communicate with each other. And that has led to an opportunity missed.

“So far, I said it in Toronto (ROMA), I said it, basically, in every meeting, all levels of government had a golden opportunity to have an independent review for all the things that happened last spring,” El-Chantiry said. “Not a special advisor, not Hydro One, or Ontario Power Generation (OPG), or Hydro Quebec, or the Ottawa River Control Board. We need an independent review.”

El-Chantiry, who has made this request several times over the last eight months, says there is a lot of important information to be learned from an independent review.

“If they come out and say nothing is going to save you from another flood, If it’s climate change, it’s going to happen, then we’re having a different discussion today (Feb. 24),” he said. “You’d be asking me, ‘oh we heard there is going to be another flood, what are you going to do about it?’ Are you going to allow people to lift up their houses? Are you going to give people some money to build preventative measures? How are you going to do it? Would you rather give someone $100,000 to fix their house and have it on stilts or posts or whatever or would you rather give them money from disaster relief, year after year? So that will create a different discussion.”

Open communication between all levels of government is a learning opportunity.

“I want to quote (former Ottawa Riverkeeper) Meredith Brown who said it,” El-Chantiry said. “She basically said we shouldn’t be afraid of an independent review, because ‘when we all dive in to the Ottawa River, when we come out, we’ll all have learned something about the Ottawa River.’ That was an opportunity, and we missed it. We missed it because Mr. Yakabuski (Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry), thinks a special advisor with $60,000 is going to give us the answers.”

That being said, El-Chantiry wants to know what has come of that advisor’s report.

“Even with the advisor’s report, with it’s 60-some recommendations, the Ontario government hasn’t put a dime in to it,” he said. “So, what kind of advisory report is that if the people who initiated it, aren’t asking for anything? In the report he talked about purchasing property as one of the recommendations. Maybe that should be an option too. That’s the discussion that is missing. The last thing our government said is they are going to study the recommendations. Really? In eight weeks, God forbid if we have another flood, and you haven’t decided what to do with this? The province has no plan.”

The city has repeatedly pushed the province for funding to help make repairs to infrastructure from last year’s flood, but they aren’t hearing anything back.

“We have pushed more than once or twice for assistance,” he said. “And to this date, we haven’t received anything. Yes, we received some help from the military, that came from the federal government. Yes, some residents have received some money from the province’s disaster relief program. I’m disappointed though because there is a lack of cooperation between the three levels. To go by the rules, the city has to spend so much before the province starts spending. The province then has to spend so much before the feds start spending. So basically the $5.6 million we spent on the flood last year, we get nothing from the province.”

Meanwhile, several key roads in West Carleton serving riverside communities, still need work.

“I asked the engineers to check the roads affected by the flood,” El-Chantiry said. “They are safe, but they are deemed compromised. They were under water for a long time. We need money to get them fixed and to this day we haven’t heard anything.”

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