Are you in the high-risk flood zone? I asked residents of Pierrefonds last week.
“Do you know the winning numbers for Friday’s lottery?” came one response.
More than two months after the flood of the century, waterlogged residents in this, the hardest-hit area on the island of Montreal, are still in the dark about this crucial question. Yet it is the key to knowing whether they will be allowed to rebuild.
In June, the Quebec government decreed that property owners in high-risk zones whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed by flooding will not be able to return. Public consultations were held last Monday across the province to outline how homes would be judged salvageable — or not.
Those in the “centenary” flood zones — where a flood is likely every 20 to 100 years — can rebuild regardless of the extent of the damage to their houses.
Those in the “zero-to-20-yearzone,” however – with a significant risk of flooding within the next 20 years – can only rebuild if the damage is less than 50 per cent.
I decided to put myself in their gumboots. Armed with a postal code and numbers for various government ministries and agencies, I set out to find the flood map for their area.
How hard could it be?
In two clicks I was able to locate an interactive map of Vancouver and learn that the house I grew up in will be flooded when the sea level rises by nine metres – but not seven. A floodplain map of Toronto was also easily found and searchable by address. Beware the tony Beaches.
As it turns out, there is no flood map for Pierrefonds – or at least no map of any use to residents.
“We don’t go by maps,” explained the director of communications at the Pierrefonds/Roxboro Borough Hall, Johanne Palladini, when I called.
“We go by the elevation of the house vis-à-vis average flood levels,” Palladini said. “You have to hire a surveyor to determine which zone you are in.”
The government has been vague about where to go for information on flood zones.
As part of its June flooding decree, the Quebec government said it would force 65 municipalities that have never had flood maps to produce them. They were 65 of the 278 municipalities in Quebec that were flooded in the spring – stretching from Blainville to Péribonka.
But neither the environment ministry nor the public safety ministry could confirm the dates by when the maps would have to be made, or how, or with what financing.
“Authorities will make announcements at the appropriate time to answer your questions,” wrote a spokesperson for the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Action against Climate Change in a single-line response to half a dozen questions.
When I asked the Montreal Metropolitan Community, ostensibly responsible for flood maps in the city, whether maps for heavily hit areas like Pierrefonds would be updated given the record flooding, they directed me to a spokesperson for the provincial public safety ministry. He sent me a written response: “Municipalities have to use the maps specified in their regulations,” said Pierre Luc Lévesque, referring to the 211 affected municipalities that do have flood maps. “It is possible they date back several years. A consultation will take pace in the fall of 2017 to evaluate whether new maps will have to be produced.”
The environment ministry does provide a map, searchable by postal code or address, which purports to show whether an area is of high or low flood risk. It covers places like Kirkland and Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. But it doesn’t cover Rigaud or Pierrefonds, where whole streets became canals reminiscent of Venice – without the gondolas or gondoliers.
Meanwhile, the city of Montreal provides a map of flood zones that is so small you can’t even read the names of boroughs on it, much less distinguish between types of flood zones.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Tim Coochey, looking for information on his own street, des Maçons in Pierrefonds.
“We don’t have our (damage) assessment reports and we don’t know if it’s a floodplain or not,” he said. “Are we in the zero-to20-year flood risk zone, or the zero-to-100? And which map will they use to find out? The one that’s outdated?”
One resident suggested I talk to Lewis Poulin, the founder of the Pierrefonds-Roxboro Proprietors & Residents Association – and a thorn in the side of the borough’s leadership for the last decade.
He pointed to a map found in Annex E of a flood zone bylaw on the Pierrefonds/Roxboro website. It divides Pierrefonds into two maps, lined with colour-coded numerical values indicating high-to-low-risk flood zones. It’s nice to look at. The problem is no one knows how to read it, Poulin said.
“It’s a testament to how poor the borough document is – it doesn’t help residents understand,” Poulin said.
Having highlighted the increased risk of flooding in the area 10 years ago – no one listened, he said – he then pointed out to borough officials in 2010 how difficult the new map was to navigate.
“It would be interesting to see if the borough can help you interpret it,” he said.
After several calls to 311 for help, and being put on hold for 15 minutes each time, I called the borough’s communications director, Johanne Palladini. There is a map in Annex E, she said – but no one really uses it.
For the time being, the borough is not issuing any permits for major reconstruction in flooded areas, until the damage assessments are in.
And then, as per the government decree, if homeowners show up at the permits counter they will have to provide a document attesting to what flood zone they are in, Palladini said.
For that, you have to call a surveyor.
Stéphane Roy, a surveyor based in Laval, said he’s recently taken a few contracts from people wanting to raise their foundations or trying to conduct real-estate transactions in the new, post-flood reality.
Then he patiently explained to a non-surveyor that the maps are all but useless.
The maps – for Laval or Pierrefonds – can show those who can read them the possibility of flooding, he said. But it’s up to a surveyor to confirm whether a given property lies within a floodplain, by measuring the “geodetic” height of a property – “the elevation with corrections made to account for the curvature of the earth’s surface.” Duh.
Echoing Palladini, he said that on any given street there may be homes that are in the zero-to20-year floodplain and others that are not, while some may be only partly in the zone – a bureaucratic nightmare to come.
“But given what happened, the average 100-year flood levels and high-water marks will have to be reviewed,” Roy said. “There were some places in the flood zones that didn’t get flooded at all, and some people were affected who weren’t even in the zone. They had never seen water like that – it’s bizarre.”
It’s perfectly plausible, however, that some homeowners didn’t know the risk of flooding, he said. It’s only in the last 15 years or so that surveyors have been asked to indicate in certificates of location whether a property is located in a flood zone.
That information will cost a homeowner living near the river upwards of $1,200, Roy said. It’s another expense flood victims will have to squeeze out of their savings if they want to rebuild.
We don’t have our (damage) assessment reports and we don’t know if it’s a floodplain or not.