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MONTREAL—Dorota Wasil has had two homes for much of the past year. She and her family have never felt so vulnerable.
Their primary residence since the spring of 2017 has been a hotel in the western suburbs of Montreal where she, her husband and two children sleep.
But days are spent feeding logs into the fireplace of their actual home, a two-level residence on Rue des Maçons in the Pierrefonds neighbourhood that was hard hit last May when water from the swollen Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers swallowed up hundreds of waterfront properties.
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There is no heat in the house. Kitchen supplies are gathered on a plank of wood that sits on an upturned box. There is a stove and refrigerator, but no cupboards. Wasil has contested an provincial assessment that put financial compensation for her damages at $ 23,000.
The most affordable contractor she could find says it will cost $ 80,000 to rebuild.
“We have two places, but we feel like we have nowhere to live,” she said, standing amid the construction material and boxes and exposed wires that decorate the main floor of the house. “I feel like we’re homeless … It’s not a normal life.”
Not normal, but distressingly common.
Almost a year after the devastating floods, there are still about 80 families across the province living in hotels, said Jacques Drewitz, a co-ordinator with the Red Cross, which houses and feeds those who cannot return home.
The flooding has been attributed to a dangerous combination of a heavy snowfall last winter, including a late-March dump of up to 60 centimetres, followed by a rapid springtime rise in temperatures and heavy rains through April and early May.
“This was a very big incident for Quebec,” Drewitz said. “In terms of the social impact, it was huge. With the forest fires in western Canada there were no more houses remaining. They were finished. There was no choice but to rebuild. Here, it is a question of whether they have lost enough to lose everything or will they be partly reimbursed because they didn’t lose enough.”
Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux recently told the Quebec legislature that the province had so far paid out $ 148 million to those who suffered damage in the floods.
But the Quebec government has ordered that houses located in floodzones where damages are evaluated valued at more than 50 per cent of the property’s total value must be demolished.
In Rigaud, a rural municipality on the south shore of the Ottawa River, near the Quebec-Ontario border, that edict has caused a particular dilemma, said Pier-Luc Cauchon, who helps lead a group of homeowners whose properties were damaged in the floods.
“In Rigaud, the value of the houses is low and it’s easy to bust it,” he said of the 50-per-cent threshold. “But they don’t want to demolish.”
Cauchon, who has a background in construction and project management, isn’t put off by the forms and permits and regulations that can sometimes complicate the rebuilding process for overwhelmed novices. He said he spends about 40 hours each week travelling to waterfront communities reviewing damage claims and government assessments and advising homeowners how to proceed.
At the same time he is overseeing reconstruction of his own house and his father’s house on Ile-Mercier, an island community in western Montreal where homes were damaged by the rising Rivière-des-Prairies.
“I handle the hot files,” Cauchon said. “When I went to Rigaud, it was like I was a magnet. Everyone came out into the street saying, ‘I need help, I need help.’ ”
Tauseef Bhatti was among the homeowners seeking help at a recent public meeting with city officials in the Pierrefonds neighbourhood.
He and his family are still living in two hotel rooms and waiting for the necessary assessments to be completed before officials decide if he can have a permit to rebuild his home or if it must be demolished. Meanwhile, he said his neighbour who lives across the road, directly on the water, suffered greater damage but has already been cleared to rebuild.
“We are real people and suffering. We’re going through mental torture and nightmare, my family and kids,” he said. “How long should this really take? What is reasonable time frame that we should allow to suffer?”
Councillor Alex Norris, president of the city’s Public Security Commission, said he sympathized with Bhatti’s plight.
“You have to understand, too, that this is an unprecedented event. We want to make sure that we get it right before you rebuild. You don’t want to rebuild under circumstances that will invite a recurrence of what you’ve already gone through.”
It’s hard to reconcile the reason of officialdom and the emotions that remain raw and exposed. Drewitz, of the Red Cross, said he met an older woman whose home had flooded. She told him that during a recent rainstorm, her husband’s hands started trembling uncontrollably, which she attributed to the trauma suffered last spring.
This week’s provincial budget announced $ 226 million for water management in Quebec, which includes $ 81 million for monitoring and preparing for annual flooding incidents and $ 7-million for a team of researchers studying the impact of climate change in flooding events.
But on Rue des Maçons there is spotty progress a year after the flood. One house a few doors down from Dorota Wasil has already been demolished, leaving behind just the wooden address plaque nailed to a tree.
Another has two massive shipping containers in the driveway that hold furniture and belongings until renovations are completed. The majority of homes on the street have red and white construction permits in the window.
There are no “for sale” signs — at least not yet.
“We’re on a blacklist to sell our house,” said Wasil, who is now hoping for a revised damage assessment that will allow her to complete the reconstruction of her home.
“I think we are in a situation where we’ll have to live here another few years until people forget that there was a flood here.”