Layton visits Quebec flood zone

NDP Leader Jack Layton toured the flood-stricken Richelieu Valley Monday morning, where residents are reeling after another weekend of heavy rain that boosted water levels again.

NDP leader wants army to stay for cleanup

NDP Leader Jack Layton toured the flood-stricken Richelieu Valley Monday morning, where residents are reeling after another weekend of heavy rain that boosted water levels again.

Layton asked local officials what kind of help they need from Ottawa.

The mayor of one of the hardest hit municipalities, Saint-Paul-de-l'Île-aux-Noix, Gérard Dutil, told Layton that the relationship with the military is great and that soldiers are doing a fine job. But Dutil said the federal government's overall response has been "lame."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said the army's role is limited  to protecting people during the emergency phase of a disaster.

But Layton said the reason cited for pulling out the soldiers seemed flimsy, and he suggested federal infrastructure programs might perhaps be able to help flood victims.

Layton also told reporters that he will speak to the prime minister to communicate the needs of flood victims, and he will bring up the issue in the Commons when it resumes on June 2.

"We'll find a way to work together," Layton said. "This is not a question of ideology or politics."

Layton's visit was the first stopover to the area by a federal party leader.

He toured Saint-Paul-de-l'Île-aux-Noix, with several of his newly-elected Quebec MPs. They also visited the local Red Cross Centre. which is co-ordinating aid for victims of the flooding.

Heavy rain and high winds caused water levels on the Richelieu River to rise by 25 centimetres, bringing the water close to the record levels set on May 23 and May 6.

However, residents will be getting a slight reprieve with sun in the forecast until at least Wednesday.

Hydro Météo, the provincial agency that tracks water levels, said the water will continue to rise slightly over the next few days, and it will take at least three weeks of good weather for water levels to recede to normal.

The flooding is entering its sixth week. Several thousand homes and businesses have flooded and 1,000 people have left their homes.

Dutil said he was pleased to see Layton in the area, although he questioned how much power the NDP leader has to help residents.

The mayor added his voice to the growing criticism that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not visited Quebec's flood zone, despite flying to see other disaster sites in Manitoba and Alberta.

"It tells me that somebody somewhere doesn't care about Quebec, and I would have liked to see Mr. Harper here," Dutil said. "Quebec is just as important as the rest of Canada."

Thousands sign on to help

A group organizing a cleaning blitz has been overwhelmed with calls from volunteers wanting to help.

Michel Fecteau, who speaks for SOS Richelieu, said 8,000 people have signed up and the swell in numbers has caused the group to add a second weekend for people to go the area to clear debris.

The volunteers will start the cleanup effort on the weekend of June 11 and 12, and the second weekend is June 18 and 19.

SOS Richelieu is also looking for volunteers with specialized skills to help with rebuilding.

"If we've got some electricians, plumbing, carpenters, people like that, if they're willing to give us a weekend for families that were badly hurt and don't have much money," Fecteau said.

Artists are also coming to the aid of flood victims. Two comedy nights are scheduled in St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu in June, and more than 20 musicians are donating their time for a Red Cross benefit in Montreal on June 1.

With files from The Canadian Press