Devastating flood in Quebec's Saguenay region remembered on 20th anniversary

Over the course of three days in 1996, communities in the Saguenay were hit with between 100 and 275 millimetres of rain. There were landslides, then roads started to flood. Some were completely washed away, as were people's homes.

Rainy July, outdated dams and dikes led to floods that killed 10

An aerial view of an overflooded dam on the Rivière Chicoutimi shows a house resisting a major flood in downtown Chicoutimi July 21, 1996. Every house around it was taken as major floods hit the Saguenay region. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

In the first half of July 1996, it rained almost every day in Quebec's Saguenay region. Rivers and lakes were practically full to the brim.

Then came July 19.

The rain that fell that day was expected to be significant, but forecasters never predicted what would happen next.

Over the course of three days, communities in the Saguenay were hit with between 100 and 275 millimetres of rain. There were landslides, then roads started to flood. Some were completely washed away, as were people's homes.

The flooding would lead to 10 deaths, the destruction of 800 homes, the displacement of nearly 16,000 people and $300 million in damage.

This house became a symbol of the floods in Quebec's Saguenay region after pictures such as this one of it standing amid torrents of water were shown on television and in newspapers around the world. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A knock at the door in the night

For one resident of the former town of La Baie, the memories of that catastrophic flood are all too vivid 20 years later.

On July 19, 1996, Gerard Blackburn heard someone knocking at his door in the middle of the night.

His wife told him not to go to the door, thinking it may be robbers.

"I said no, robbers don't knock," he said.

Gerard and Nicole Blackburn recently returned to the site of their former home for the first time since it washed away. (Radio-Canada)

When he opened his door, there were police and firefighters on the other side. They told him he had to get out immediately.

His family left with nothing. The next day, he received a phone call – his house had been torn from its foundation and sent barreling down the Rivière à Mars.

His two kids' baby albums and even his wife Nicole's wedding ring were lost.

"You almost fall to the ground. You say to yourself, 'What am I going to do?'" he said.

Coping with the Saguenay flood's aftermath

26 years ago
Duration 2:23
Nine days after the flood, while people deal with the disaster's realities, Canadians raise record amounts of aid.

What came next

Months after the flood, a commission led by civil engineer Roger Nicolet looked into its causes.

It found that most of the flood region's dams and dikes were built in the 1960s or earlier and did not meet standards.

The Nicolet Commission made a number of recommendations, including adopting a law on dam security, forcing all municipalities to have emergency plans and identifying flood zones.

As for the Blackburns, it took them about 10 years to get re-established — they now live in Jonquière, far from the river that upended their lives.

"It's weird sometimes," Gerard Blackburn said. 

"You look for things and you realize 'Oh right. I had that in La Baie, but now it's gone."

Germain Brassard, a resident of Grande Baie, walks through what used to be a street July 23, 1996. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

with files from Radio-Canada