'I got fooled, basically': Confusion over flood zones leaves Laval man homeless and $20K in debt

Many Quebec municipalities hardest-hit during last spring's flooding still don't have consistent, up-to-date flood maps, and that's causing major confusion for some homeowners who live near the water.

Municipalities still using old, conflicting data to decide if flood-damaged homes can be rebuilt

Lassaad Gharbi's Laval house suffered nearly $140,000 in damage during the spring 2017 floods and is now considered a writeoff. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

When Lassaad Gharbi bought his dream home on the banks of the Rivière des Prairies, its waterfront view was a major selling point.

A year later, that proximity to the water led to the destruction of his house — and his financial future.

"It breaks my heart," said Gharbi. "I got depressed for so long."

During last spring's historic flooding, his property on Terrasse des Lilas in Laval was swamped by more than two metres of water.

His foundation caved in in the deluge. His living space wrecked, he was left homeless.

Gharbi didn't even know his house was in a high-risk zone.

"I got fooled, basically," he said.

Lassaad Gharbi's home was swamped with almost two metres of water in May 2017. (Lassaad Gharbi)

When Gharbi bought the place in April 2016, the land survey he got from the seller showed his house was not in a zero-to-20 year — or high-risk — flood zone.

That document, from 2009, was based on high-water projections made in 1995.

After the flood, the City of Laval made Gharbi hire a surveyor to draft a new land map to determine whether or not he could rebuild.

That survey, based on 2014 data commissioned by Laval, showed something totally different — nearly his entire house was in the high-risk flood zone.

"Had I known I would have never gone through all of this," said Gharbi, "I would have rented or bought somewhere else."

Now the province won't let him repair or rebuild, and its buyout offer of $186,000 won't cover the balance on his mortgage, leaving him nearly $20,000 underwater.

"It's killing me inside, to be honest," Gharbi said. "All my salary is going between my mortgage and my rent."

Hodgepodge of rules, conflicting data

Gharbi's case is an example of how the hodgepodge of regulations and the lack of clear flood-zone data in the province can lead to ruinous consequences for homebuyers.

In Quebec, it's up to individual municipalities to the draw the maps that show expected high-water levels for the waterways within their boundaries for every two, 20 and 100 years.
Lassaad Gharbi is still making mortgage payments on his derelict house. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

However, different municipalities use different data sets or interpret that data differently — sometimes for the same bodies of water.

For example, Pierrefonds-Roxboro tells homeowners to expect water levels on the Rivière des Prairies to reach 21.25 metres in the area around Saraguay Street every 20 years.

But just across the river, by Janson Street in Laval, the projection is half a metre lower, at 20.75 metres.

Pierrefonds-Roxboro is working off data from a 2006 provincial government study, whereas Laval's data was privately commissioned in 2014.

Temptation to adopt development-friendly zones

"It would be much easier if it was dealt with at the provincial level," said Pascale Biron, a professor of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University.

Concordia's Pascale Biron says it's the government's responsibility to provide citizens with easy access to clear flood-risk data. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Biron says other countries are much better at informing citizens about which areas are prone to flooding.

She points to the U.K., where potential homebuyers can type an address into a search bar and see clear, up-to-date mapping of zones at risk for flooding.

"[For] everyone considering purchasing a house in the U.K., that's the first step," said Biron. "You can't pretend you didn't know."

She also says having the province determine flood zones would remove the temptation for municipalities to adopt more development-friendly flood zones.

"There's sort of a conflict of interest," said Biron. "At the municipal level the main source of income comes from property taxes, and we all know that houses with a view on the river are typically worth more and therefore bring taxes in."

New model for Montreal region not ready until 2020

A more holistic, science-based system is in the works, at least for the Montreal region.

As part of its action plan to better prepare municipalities for future flooding, Quebec's Public Security Ministry is spending millions to update the cartography of flood-prone areas — including $5.5 million for the Montreal Metropolitan Community (MMC).

L'Île-Bizard–Sainte-Geneviève borough Mayor Normand Marinacci says he's been asking the province for new maps for years.

"They told us they didn't have the funds to prepare those cards, but I think what happened in 2017 really kicked off this project."

A team of engineers and technicians is now plumbing the depths of the Rivière des Prairies, gathering data for an updated flood model for the waterway.

The Montreal Metropolitan Community is working on a detailed flood model for the entire Montreal archipelago. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"The data we acquired last year showed us that the modeling was not accurate enough for simulations of large floods," said Pierre Dupuis, a civil engineer who specializes in hydraulics hired by the MMC.

Dupuis promises the MMC will have a unified model for the entire Montreal archipelago ready by 2020.

Alain Hotte, the co-ordinator of the MMC's flood risk management office, says the old maps are better than nothing, but he acknowledges there's a certain sense of urgency to get the new models up and running.

"We want to get this done as quickly as possible."

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