Mayor of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, aka 'The Bulldozer,' shares flood wisdom

After Michel Fecteau gathered an army of organized, well-co-ordinated volunteers to help with flood relief in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2011, he earned the nickname.

Learning from past flood experience, South Shore town has filled and stockpiled 100,000 sandbags

Michel Fecteau speaks to Radio-Canada during flood relief efforts in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2011. (Radio-Canada)

After Michel Fecteau gathered an army of organized, well-co-ordinated volunteers to help with flood relief in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in 2011, people started calling him "The Bulldozer," for his ability to get things done.

Now mayors from cities and towns ravaged by floods this spring are turning to Fecteau for help.

He'll host a meeting of those mayors Thursday to share his expertise.

Fecteau was a civic-minded car salesman in 2011 when he single-handedly built "SOS Richelieu," a group of 3,500 volunteers to help clean up after the floods.

Now he is the mayor of the flood-prone community on the Richelieu River, 40 kilometres southeast of Montreal, and flood preparedness is at the top of his priority list.

Stockpiling sandbags

Several people affected by floods in Montreal have told CBC about difficulty getting sandbags from their municipal authorities.

Under Fecteau's leadership, Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu has a stockpile of 100,000 sandbags, filled and ready to be deployed at a moment's notice.

"You can't wait until you have to run after the sand and start filling the bags during the flooding period.  You have to be prepared," Fecteau told CBC.

Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu donated 20,000 sandbags from its stockpile to Rigaud over the weekend, but municipal workers in Saint-Jean have already started restocking it.

Early warning

The city is also launching an early warning system so that sandbags can be deployed before floodwaters rise rapidly.

This spring it installed surveillance cameras at key areas where the water peaked in 2011.

"In real time each day we can see the movement of the river and track the water levels, so it's live action during the flooding period," Fecteau said.

The city has also installed powerful pumps at key locations along the riverbank.

Well-organized cleanup

Fecteau said he's eager to share this expertise with mayors of towns and cities affected by floods now.

"We want to talk about quick response, and how to do cleanup, and then how to re-establish normal life afterwards," he said.

When he was head of SOS Richelieu, Fecteau's biggest task was organizing a massive one-day cleanup, with volunteers bussed in from Montreal and other cities.

He stressed that such a cleanup needs to be well-structured, with transportation, safety gear and food available for volunteers.

Those volunteers were able to remove all of the thousands of sandbags that had been deployed in Saint-Jean in a single day.

He understands that people fighting to save their homes are probably close to a breaking point.

"We have to be very careful and have specialists take care of those people.  The stress seems to be at the maximum," he said.

His message for those people: be patient. The water will go down. The repairs and renovations will be finished.  People will help.  It will just take time.


Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.