SAINTE-MARTHE-SUR-LE-LAC, Que. — Sylvie Bechard had only owned her little brick house for six months when her neighbour came banging on her door on the night of April 27, 2019. The dike holding back the Lake of Two Mountains had been breached, and floodwaters were rushing toward her home.
“She said ‘Sylvie, we have to evacuate, the dike has given out. We’re being flooded,”’ Bechard recalled recently.
Four years after flooding forced the evacuation of more than 6,000 residents of Ste-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que., and damaged hundreds of homes, there is plenty of anger from residents who say they’re still suffering from the financial and emotional consequences. Earlier this month, a class-action lawsuit against the municipality and the province on behalf of flooding victims was authorized to move forward.
Bechard remembers the days that followed the breach, when Armed Forces or police would take her by boat down the flooded streets of the town northwest of Montreal to retrieve a few belongings. When she was finally able to return, 11 days later, the scene was “hell,” she said.
While the ground floor was high enough to be spared, her basement had filled with five feet of stagnant water, destroying her living room, two bedrooms, and all her photos, clothes and personal effects. “Everything I accumulated in my life was there,” she said in an interview.
Richard Lauzon, another Ste-Marthe resident, also saw his life plans washed away with the 2019 flooding. Lauzon owned two homes in the community: one for himself and one that was intended for his elderly parents.
One house was demolished due to flood damage. The other he sold at a loss after becoming tired of what he describes as the lack of responsiveness from the municipal and provincial governments to questions about being compensated for the repairs.
“I worked all my life to own something of my own, and at the end I find myself with nothing,” said Lauzon, who is now a renter in another city.
Lauzon is the lead plaintiff in the class-action, which alleges that authorities knew the dike could break and didn’t act quickly enough to prevent it. It has not yet been judged on the facts.
Lauzon cites a 2017 report by private firm Axio Environnement, which found that significant repairs were needed in order to to counter the effects of erosion and prevent a rupture. “(The dike) was neglected, and one day or another, it was going to happen,” he said.
Officials have said in the past that the town’s mayor had requested an environmental assessment, and work was expected to begin soon when the dike broke. Premier Francois Legault said at the time that nobody had believed the situation was at imminent risk of rupture.
The lawyer heading the class action says he has yet to finalize a dollar figure for the claim. But he wants to ensure residents are fully reimbursed for the cost of the repairs or loss of their homes, as well as for the others harms they’ve suffered, including psychological.
While many residents received provincial compensation for damage to their homes, Lauzon said it wasn’t enough to cover the full cost. He said he was given $131,000 for his ruined three-bedroom home, a figure he calls “ridiculous.”
Today, the neighbourhood shows signs of what happened. Vacant lots sit among the older homes that still stand and others that are newly built.
The dike that holds back the lake has been rebuilt higher, with a walking path on top and sloping sides that feature large rocks on one side, and grass on the other. On a recent visit, the brown waters lapped about halfway up the side of the dike, not close to the top, but still far higher than the homes sitting on the other side.
One of the vacant lots once contained the house where Josee Ares once lived with her young family.
In a phone interview, she said the house had initially not appeared to be too badly damaged by the flood. But the next year, cracks started appearing throughout the foundation due to what an engineer would later tell her was water damage, as well as the movement of the ground, which had become unstable.
What followed was a three-year back-and-forth with the city over the future of the house, which she eventually concluded needed to be demolished. She said her mental health took a hit as she dealt with contractors, engineers, and government officials while trying to work, raise her young son and take care of her partner.
When the demolition permit was granted last summer, all she felt was relief.
“I thought I’d be emotional because it was my first home, where my son was born. There are so many memories,” she said. “But what was bigger was the liberation from all that.”
Bechard, for her part, spent $40,000 on renovations to make her home habitable. While she eventually received $50,000 in compensation from the province, she said it wasn’t enough to restore her home to its previous state, and it didn’t take into account the emotional stress that caused her to take a year off work.
She wasn’t keen on the class action so decided to band together with another group of residents to hire a lawyer to seek compensation from the city and province. She said she’s hoping to be awarded $150,000.
Last year, Bechard sold her house. Since then she’s become a nomad, splitting time between friends’ homes and travelling. Instead of buying another house, she decided to upgrade her RV.
“That way if I’m on the edge of a lake and the water rises, I can just leave,” she said.