A lesson from New Jersey as Quebec tries to persuade people to leave flood zones for good

New Jersey has found a way to encourage hundreds of homeowners to move away from flood zones, but unlike Quebec, the state has no cap on compensation.

'Definitely ... no cap,' says an official of Quebec's plan to limit buyout compensation to $200K

Ronald Pichet, right, visits his home in Rigaud, Que., during flooding. He says for the moment, it's high and dry. (CBC)

While residents of homes along the Ottawa River in Rigaud, Que., pump water from their basements for the second time in two years, Ronald Pichet's home is dry — for now.

After the historic 2017 floods, Pichet built up the ground underneath his house and waterproofed the foundation.

Like Pichet, many homeowners flooded two years ago are better prepared this time around: They've repaired their homes and done what it takes to protect their waterfront paradise against another deluge.

On Monday, as he toured a flood zone in Gatineau, Premier François Legault said his government would offer a cumulative total of $100,000 per flood-damaged home for repairs. He also said the province is willing to buy out homeowners with property on flood plains, for up to $200,000.

Quebec Premier François Legault toured flooded areas of Laval on Sunday. The following day, in Gatineau, he announced his government's compensation offer to homeowners with property in flood zones. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

That dollar figure won't likely tempt Pichet to give up his waterfront property.

He said $200,000 — the maximum the province is willing to offer to persuade him to leave for good — wouldn't even cover the cost of his renovations, let alone the value of his house. 

"There are some cottages which are older and are not worth a lot. Maybe that could be an option for those people, but for quality homes — $200,000? Forget it," he said. 

"I think there's a need for multiple solutions."

Tough choices ahead

"For some owners, this amount probably wouldn't even pay off their mortgage," concurs University of Waterloo Prof. Daniel Henstra, a specialist in flood management policies. "But I do suspect that others who have been flooded multiple times would probably jump at the opportunity.

"I commend the Quebec government for having this tough discussion about buyouts," said Henstra on CBC Montreal's Daybreak

"Really, you have to ask, is it better for taxpayers to keep paying to repair flooded properties, or is it better to have a one-time payment and recapture this land and valuable parkland?"

See what Rigaud, Que., looks like from above in this drone video:

Get a bird's eye view of Rigaud under floodwaters

2 years ago
The drone footage was captured on April 23, 2019. 0:58

Don't cap compensation, says New Jersey

In the United States, New Jersey faced a similar challenge after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 

Through a buyout program called Blue Acres, the state government has purchased homes in flood zones and at-risk areas, demolished the houses and transformed the lots into vacant swaths of land, which helps to absorb water and mitigate flooding. 

The difference between Blue Acres and what Quebec is offering is that in New Jersey, there's no cap on compensation. The amount is determined based on the value of the home before Sandy struck.

A home in Woodbridge, N.J., is demolished after it was purchased from willing sellers. The land will be protected from further development and help ease flooding as it returns to nature. (Courtesy Township of Woodbridge, NJ)

In 2013, a total of $300 million US in federal funding was committed to the program. Since then, a total of 735 homeowners have accepted buyout offers and 593 homes have been demolished.

"My advice for the local government would be: definitely [do] not have a cap on what the offer is," said Stacy Hofmann with the office of Emergency Management for the Township of Woodbridge, N.J., one of the communities that participated in the program.

"That I could see definitely being a hurdle for your government. They just have to be a little open-minded about it and realize that they're helping families get out of harm's way."

Hofmann said homeowners can choose to accept or reject the government's offer, or can appeal and negotiate a different price. 

Most of the at-risk neighbourhoods in Woodbridge were made up of low- to middle-income families, and the value of most homes was in the ballpark of $250,000, she estimated. 

In Woodbridge, entire blocks of homes have been demolished, and in some abandoned neighbourhoods, the township has started to remove roads. (Courtesy Township of Woodbridge, NJ)

Though Blue Acres has helped, Hofmann said it hasn't solved all of the township's flood-related challenges. 

Some residents chose to stick around rather than sell and move away, and it's not easy for the township to provide services to those increasingly isolated homes in areas that frequently flood. 

Woodbridge uses flooding alert systems to warn people to move to higher ground when it anticipates rising water levels. 

"Once it is flooded, it is very difficult for our emergency services to access these people and provide them with the help they need," Hofmann said.

Despite the challenges, Hofmann said, they have to adapt and accept the lessons learned along the way. 

Watch as residents of Quebec's Beauce region return to their flooded homes:

Returning to flooded homes in Beauce region

2 years ago
Residents of Beauce must pick up the pieces as they return to their homes wrecked by flooding. 0:54


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist reporting on news and current affairs. She has covered election campaigns, criminal trials, riots and natural disasters, and even once explored an ice-age cave.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Matt D’Amours


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