For the past two years, the tiny town on the shores of the Lake of Two Mountains had planned to raise and fortify the 43-year-old dike that broke Saturday.
STE-MARTHE-SUR-LE-LAC — Exhausted residents of this tiny town just across the Lake of Two Mountains from Montreal seemed shell-shocked Sunday as the sunshine revealed the extent of the damage caused when a 43-year-old dike gave way Saturday, flooding more than 2,500 houses and forcing about 5,000 residents to leave their homes in a panic.
The southern portion of this town is under water, about one-third of its population of 18,000 are out of their homes (after another 1,500 residents of were urged to leave Sunday), and an area spanning about 50 residential streets is now a no-go zone. The lake has swallowed up dozens of cars and many basements, but so far, there have been no deaths or injuries in the calamity.
Premier François Legault congratulated the volunteers, firefighters, soldiers and police officers who worked through the night in the dark to evacuate people and shore up the flooded zone. He called the injury-free evacuation a “near miracle”, considering how quickly the water came up and how many people were affected.
“To have evacuated in a couple of hours, nearly 5,000 people, it is almost a miracle,” Legault told reporters after surveying the area Sunday afternoon. “There were people in wheelchairs being evacuated in pickup trucks and nobody was injured. It’s almost a miracle, so bravo for the work that was done.”
He noted that of some 6,500 evacuees, only about 50 are staying in the two shelters provided in the nearby town of Deux-Montagnes.
“That means the vast majority are staying with friends and family. What beautiful solidarity. … That shows how close-knit this community is.”
Legault announced that Quebec’s public security department will give the Red Cross $1 million in emergency funding to respond to the most pressing needs of the evacuees over the next few days, such as food, clothing and shelter.
“We think the water is still rising in Lake of Two Mountains. Work is being done to protect some sectors, but it will take 24 to 48 hours to stabilize the situation, so they can’t return to their homes.”
The mayor of Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, herself an evacuee, thanked her city’s police officers and firefighters, as well as those of neighbouring towns, the Sûreté de Québec, Hydro-Québec, the Canadian military and neighbouring municipalities of Deux-Montagnes, Repentigny and St-Jérôme.
“The incredible speed of intervention by all these people meant that all of the affected residents could be brought to safety successfully and that is all that counts right now,” Mayor Sonia Paulus said.
She said 100,000 tons of rocks and gravel have been delivered to her town and work has begun on two temporary dikes. These are being built along 23rd and 29th Aves., below Louise St., to try to contain the flooding to the worst-hit zone.
She asked people who have been evacuated and need information about how and when they can access their homes to call 450-472-7310.
“While the evacuation order is still in place, no residents will be allowed to go back into their homes.”
But many residents seemed to be ignoring official warnings to stay out of the flooded area on Sunday. They used rowboats, dinghies, kayaks and canoes to access their homes. Others simply walked through the flooded streets wearing hip waders, not willing to wait for a green light from authorities to rescue pets or valuables that had been left behind in the rush to get out in the night.
All afternoon, residents could be seen pulling wagons and pushing wheelbarrows full of clothing, animal cages and other materials recovered from homes too close to the rising waters. Volunteers arrived with pickup trucks full of sandbags and formed human chains to lay them down in a bid to protect properties along the edge of the flooded areas.
Jade Carpentier stood on 30th Ave. Sunday afternoon, petting a very nervous looking grey cat and worrying about her other pets, left behind in the rush to evacuate.
“Our basement is finished,” she said. “My dad just went in the canoe and got my cat, but I have rats and mice upstairs and the cage was too big so we couldn’t get them yet.”
Two women were in tears as they anxiously watched a man pull a recycling bin through several feet of water to dry land. Inside were two more rescued cats.
Karen Wildman waited at the water’s edge as her husband waded into their home to put together a bag of necessities — clothing, medicine, documents. She had been visiting a friend Saturday evening when the dike broke, and her husband had only a few minutes to get out with their two children, age 5 and 8.
“He just had time to get the kids into the car and go,” she said.
According to city councillor Jean-Guy Lajeunesse, whose home is on the very edge of the submerged area, the dike that broke was built in 1976. Constructed partly of concrete, and partly of earth covered in an impermeable membrane, the dike stretches about 3.4 kilometres along the lakeshore, from Pointe-Calumet to Deux-Montagnes. At about 6 p.m. Saturday, a breach about 50 to 75 feet wide opened up, just south of 27th Ave.
The town had been planning to have the dike raised and fortified for the past two years, and was awaiting a certificate from Quebec’s environment department to begin work.