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The worst of the Muskoka floods is over, but residents still grapple with the aftermath

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WATCH: After several weeks of severe flooding that drove thousands from of their homes in parts of Eastern Canada, health officials are warning of the dangers of mould in flood-hit homes and cottages.

Allan Turnbull was in the hospital emergency room for a hernia he developed lifting sandbags and furniture when he found out he was no longer allowed in his home in Muskoka Lakes, Ont.

Turnbull’s home, like many others in Muskoka, had been flooding, with water rising about a foot over the property’s floorboards.

“We were trying to stabilize the building, putting in a lot of sandbags, trying to get the furniture out,” Turnbull told Global News. “One of the volunteers told the building department that they thought the building was unstable.”

READ MORE: Wolfe Island residents homes are now threatened by high water levels

When the Muskoka Lakes’ building department staff inspected Turnbull’s home, they determined it was too risky for people to stay in and put an occupation ban on it.

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“(My partner) got the phone call saying we can’t go back into the house,” he said. “It was a pretty miserable day.”

Turnbull lives with his partner in a home that’s adjacent to the Moon River, a body of water that passes through Muskoka Lakes and rose significantly at the height of the township’s flood emergency, which lasted for over two weeks from the end of April until mid-May.

Turnbull and his partner haven’t been able to stay in their home for almost a month — and he expects it will be another couple months before they can move back in permanently.

“Our daily life has been completely disrupted,” he said.

Many residents are still experiencing the after-effects from this year’s devastating floods in Muskoka, including damaged property that comes with exorbitant costs and the stress of when — or how — life will return to normal.

WATCH: Flooding in Muskoka region leads to lake water lapping up against cottages, homes

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Flooding in Muskoka region leads to lake water lapping up against cottages, homes

According to Anna Ziolecki, director of Partners for Action — a University of Waterloo-based research network aimed at advancing flood resiliency in Canada — it can take weeks or months for communities to recover from floods.

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“Folks typically experience the impacts of seeing their home devastated in different ways,” Ziolecki said. “Stress and anxiety of seeing your home destroyed or under water can be serious for people.”

READ MORE: Hamilton closes waterfront trails due to high water levels of Lake Ontario

Katie Hayes is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health whose research focuses on mental health and climate change.

In 2018, Hayes studied the mental-health effects that occurred following the 2013 floods in High River, Alta.

What she found is that a number of long-term mental-health issues developed among the town’s population after the floods, including the presence of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety when it rains. In Hayes’ study, people also reported that they experienced economic disruptions, leading to a family breakdown.

“Most people don’t have flood insurance,” Hayes said. “Even in Alberta, they had the disaster relief program. There was lots of inconsistency in terms of who was covered and who wasn’t.”

In response to the Muskoka floods, the Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians program, which provides financial assistance to those eligible, was activated for primary residents in Bracebridge, Muskoka Lakes and Huntsville, all of which were under states of emergency due to flooding.

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People who are eligible for the program could be reimbursed for cleanup expenses, the cost of repairs and essential property replacements as well as basic emergency expenses, including evacuation travel costs.

READ MORE: High winds, waves cause flooding on Toronto Islands

But those not covered under private insurance or the province’s program are required to pay for damages out of pocket, Ziolecki said.

“It can be significant,” she added. “In Canada, the average cost that is quoted for basement flooding, for example, is somewhere around $40,000.”

When a community experiences a disaster, Hayes said, there is relief provided for months or even years afterwards, but that aid is not long term.

“Five years after the flood, the majority, if not all, the disaster response resources have left the community,” Hayes said of High River. “And so you’re left with these long-term things, like stressors and anxieties, that haven’t been fully addressed.”

WATCH: Ontario Premier Doug Ford tours flood ravaged cottage country

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford tours flood ravaged cottage country

Leanne Hand, 59, lives on Beaumont Drive in Bracebridge with her daughter. During the floods, Hand’s street was severely affected by water and only open to local traffic.

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Hand’s home has been without an adequate water supply for almost a month, and she expects that it will be another couple weeks before it’s fully restored.

On top of all that, Hand works full time and cares for her 39-year-old daughter, who is legally blind and has Down syndrome and dementia.

“It’s been really hard, and I’ve just been exhausted,” she said.

READ MORE: Simcoe Muskoka health unit warns used sandbags could be contaminated

Hand also noted that her daughter has been struggling with the change of routine that’s come with the floods. Typically, personal support workers come and help Hand’s daughter in the mornings, but because of the absence of a proper water supply, Hand cancelled their services for the time being.

The mother and daughter, instead, have had to shower at a local community centre or at Hand’s place of work.

“She was very upset that we were doing that so it wasn’t very easy,” Hand added.

For Hayes, it’s important to consider those who may have pre-existing mental or physical health conditions or already present stressors in the aftermath of floods.

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READ MORE: Reality check: Will Ford’s budget cuts affect relief for Ontario’s recent flooding?

“There’s these really important pieces that we need to consider with every demographic,” she said.

“The mental-health stressors are just going to exacerbate those pre-existing conditions.”

Many who experienced the 2019 Muskoka floods, however, are left wondering what can be done to help prevent the disaster from repeating itself. In 2013, the flooding in the area was called the worst in a century, but this year’s water levels surpassed those from six years ago.

Some have been vocal about water management in the region, specifically pertaining to the Muskoka River Water Management Plan originally released by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources in 2006.

READ MORE: ‘Storm event’ causes flooding, power outages in Enderby

“I think it’s much more important to focus on the water management plan and what went wrong,” Turnbull said. “Why did we have such bad flooding this year?”

Hand agrees, saying: “They definitely need to come up with a plan that would somehow manage the water better and divert the water.”

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In an exclusive phone interview with Global News, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski said anyone is able to bring forward suggested changes to any water management plans, including Muskoka’s.

“We have 70 water management plans across the province. They’re updated as necessary,” he said. “Anyone has the option of bringing forth suggested amendments to the plan, but we don’t routinely update water management plans in the province of Ontario.”

READ MORE: Flood, wet and fears of high water: what Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick look like in a deluge

According to Yakabuski, what went wrong in Muskoka this year is that there was an unusual amount of snowpack without a winter thaw as well a large amount of rain.

“When you have an extreme event, the plan no longer applies, quite frankly,” Yakabuski added. “It’s beyond the ability for the plan to manage when there’s an extreme amount of water.”

Usman Khan is a civil engineering professor at York University who specializes in water resource engineering, including flood-risk assessment and water resource management.

While Khan noted some changes that could be made, he said the 2019 Muskoka floods could not squarely be blamed on the region’s water management plan.

“It’s really difficult to put the blame of the floods on this plan,” Khan said. “I think it’s very hard to control when it’s actually raining and the flood effects.”

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If the water management plan looked at extreme cases, such as the Muskoka 2019 floods, Khan said, it would highlight any weak points or the most at-risk areas in the water system.

READ MORE: What does it mean when a community is in a state of emergency?

After that analysis is done, there still needs to be further planning and engineering to make sure that people can protect themselves from floods, he added.

“Unfortunately, when you get an event like 2019, it just blows all your calculations away because it’s well beyond what was possibly forecast,” Yakabuski said.

According to Khan, Muskoka’s water management plan lacks data to quantify the effects of future climate change.

“When we’re making watershed plans for the near future and longer term, I think, right now, it’s prudent to include any available information on future climate change in our planning in terms of both predicted rainfall data and predicted temperature changes,” he added.

READ MORE: Toronto Islands Park permits cancelled until July 31 amid flooding

Khan also points to the concept of a “sponge city,” when municipalities have dedicated places for water to be transmitted to during floods. The idea, he said, has been adopted in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and China.

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“The philosophy behind this concept is that we need to design cities or other areas to be allowed to be flooded when it’s necessary,” Khan said. “Our current method is to try and make infrastructure resistant to water so, basically, try to block water from coming in. This new philosophy basically states that resilience is better than being resistant.”

Since this year’s floods inundated Muskoka and other Ontario communities, the Ford government set up an internal task force that heard directly from people in flood zones. These community engagement sessions wrapped up on Friday after being held in Huntsville, Pembroke and Ottawa, respectively.

The engagement discussions, Yakabuski said, were meant to gather feedback from people on the ground during the floods to see what needs to change, if anything at all.

READ MORE: Canada is the only G7 country without a national flood forecasting system. Experts say there’s a cost to that

“We’re going through all of the analysis of the meetings that we’ve had as well as the data from the operators,” he added.

While the province is taking steps to address flood resiliency in Ontario, it does not erase the exorbitant costs that people are facing from property damage.

Hand estimates that the cost of damage to her property could amount to about $30,000.

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“(Our) water system is the number 1 priority, of course, and I don’t know for sure how much that’s going to be,” she said.

Hand is covered under the province’s disaster recovery program but is not covered under insurance.

WATCH: Bracebridge homeowner talks about flooding impact

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Bracebridge homeowner talks about flooding impact

According to Hayes, the socio-economic stressors from floods can be far-reaching, and people may respond to flooding differently.

Some people may grow or build a sense of resiliency from helping their neighbours, she added, while others can experience heightened stress, anxiety and depression.

“We know that a sense of community and people coming together and building networks can be really supportive for mental health,” Hayes said.

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While Turnbull and his partner are currently out of their home, he noted the large amount of support they’ve received from people in Bala, their community in Muskoka Lakes.

READ MORE: How Canadians can assist flooding victims in Ontario, Quebec and N.B.

For example, the owners of a local bakery are allowing the couple to live in an apartment above the establishment rent-free for as long as they need. Turnbull was also able to set up his accounting business, which he usually runs from home, at a friend’s office.

“It’s just been unbelievable the support and the help that we’ve had from the people of Bala,” he said. “People do come to their neighbours’ help when things like this happen.”

WATCH: Bracebridge, Ont., residents frantically sandbag as flood waters threaten homes, cottages

Click to play video 'Bracebridge, Ont. residents frantically sandbag  as flood waters threaten homes, cottages' Bracebridge, Ont. residents frantically sandbag as flood waters threaten homes, cottages
Bracebridge, Ont. residents frantically sandbag as flood waters threaten homes, cottages