Pie-IX water main break exposes holes in emergency response plan
Perfect storm of equipment deficiency and expertise gap left neighbourhood underwater
When Normand Viau's basement began to fill up with water, all he could do was sit on his steps and helplessly watch.
"It's a very bad feeling," said Viau, who ended up with a repair bill totalling around $50,000.
"I didn't start to cry, but it was close to it. You can do nothing."
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Viau was one of hundreds of homeowners whose basement flooded after a 48-inch water main burst on the corner of Pie-IX Boulevard and Villeray Street in St. Michel last October.
It took crews more than five hours to shut off the water.
Now, a CBC Montreal investigation shows borough crews weren't equipped to repair the break and city water crews don't work on Fridays, when the flood happened.
Critics say Montreal was far too slow to shut off the water main.
"Five hours for us, would not be acceptable to close a water main," said Luis Miranda, the mayor of Anjou. "A big city like Montreal, they are centralizing everything. How come they don't have 24 hour service on this? That's not normal."
According to a detailed chronology compiled by the city and obtained by CBC through an access to information request, police got a 911 call just before 5 a.m. reporting water gushing out of a hole in the road between Villeray and Everett streets.
In Montreal, with about 1,000 water main breaks a year, each borough has its own water department. On smaller, less complex breaks, they usually do the repairs themselves.
But the Pie-IX break was a big pipe on the main water network. For a break of that size, the borough has to coordinate with the city's lead engineer to come up with a plan to shut the valves down safely using specialized equipment.
Some boroughs have this equipment and can do the work themselves. Villeray-St.Michel-Parc-Extension isn't one of them.
"The fire department was there, our teams were there, but no one could actually do the work because we didn't have the equipment," said Sylvain Ouellet, Projet Montreal's water critic.
The borough had to ask the city for the equipment as well as its specialized team to run it.
But that team isn't scheduled to work Fridays. They are only on-call.
"Every minute that passed, more and more basements are flooded," said Ouellet.
"It's great to have the blue collars on call, but blue collars, lots of them live outside the island."
That morning, Ouellet, the city councillor for the Francois-Perreault district, remembers getting a call from a resident telling him the neighbourhood was underwater.
He grabbed a pair of rubber boots to see for himself.
"All this neighbourhood was like a lake," said Ouellet, gesturing to the streets of post-war homes behind him.
"It was incredible, the water just kept going and going."
The city finally had some equipment and a crew in place by 7:15 a.m., but couldn't start work on the valve for another hour.
A second team with more equipment arrived by police escort from the water department's headquarters in the southwest by 8:45 a.m., nearly four hours after the break was first reported. By 10 a.m., the valves were completely turned off.
"It was just too long," said Ouellet. "It would probably cost less for the city in the end to have someone close by at all times to respond to this kind of emergency."
The city of Montreal received 209 claims for flood damage related to the Pie-IX water main break, about a third of all water damage claims in 2015. As of this month, 26 of them had settled for a total of $86,240. The majority, 179, are still active.
Viau's entire basement was destroyed, wiping out his home office, appliances and storage. His insurance covered the damage and everything has finally been rebuilt.
But now, he's worried it could happen again due to a lack of coordination and bad scheduling at city hall.
"It's stupid, completely stupid," he said. "These guys don't work Fridays? What's up? You don't have an emergency plan?"
I wouldn't have been flooded if it had been solved earlier.- Marie-Josée Marcotte, St-Michel resident
Marie-Josée Marcotte, another resident who lives about a block away, said if crews had been available an hour or two earlier, it would have made a huge difference.
"My house got flooded at the last minute, just before they started turning it off," said Marcotte, whose insurance company is suing the city. "I wouldn't have been flooded if it had been solved earlier."
CBC repeatedly asked to speak to Chantal Rouleau, the executive committee member responsible for water infrastructure and Anie Samson, the mayor of St-Michel.
Philippe Sabourin, a spokesperson for the city, says it's too early to comment because of the legal proceedings against the city.
In an email, Sabourin said the city's water department is still investigating what happened to see if any improvements need to be made.
The delay in closing a pipe of this size can seem long in the "eyes of a neophyte", Sabourin wrote, but city employees worked as quickly as possible to limit the damage and to get things back to normal.
CBC Montreal Investigates
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