'The 500-year flood': Dozens forced from homes in Whitewater Region

Dozens of people in the Township of Whitewater Region have been forced from their homes as water levels on the Ottawa River peaked this weekend. 

About 100 homes hit by Ottawa River floodwaters

Water nearly submerges a sign in Westmeath, Ont., a community in Whitewater Region township, on May 12, 2019. Many people can only access their homes by boat, and dozens have decided to leave. (Martin Weaver/CBC)

Dozens of people in the Township of Whitewater Region have been forced from their homes as water levels on the Ottawa River peaked this weekend. 

The Renfrew County, Ont., township is about 140 kilometres northwest of downtown Ottawa, and includes nearly 90 kilometres of shoreline.

About 100 homes have been affected by flooding, Mayor Michael Moore said Sunday.

He said families have fled roughly 50 homes in the area. Some are staying with family, Moore said, while others are living in motels.

Moore said people tried to protect their homes with sandbags, but water either poured over the top or got in through the groundwater when sump pumps couldn't keep up.

The township, which has about 7,200 residents, was also hit by flooding in 2017. 

'Very discouraged'

"They were very discouraged because some of them worked two weeks and eventually had to leave," Moore said. "If the wall of water didn't get them, it was the water in the basement that did."

Some people in the township who've stayed behind can only get to and from their homes by boat.

"It is very exhausting," said Mel Ethier, who's been desperately trying to keep water out of his summer home in the community of Westmeath.

Ethier said he's moved all his furniture out of the cottage — which he built himself — and he's now worried about mould.

"You don't sleep. We're up every two hours putting gas in the pump," he said.

A home surrounded by record-breaking water levels in Westneath, Ont. (Submitted by Michael Moore)

Volunteers working hard

The military has been carrying out wellness checks daily by boat, and troops are on call at night in case they need to assist fire and ambulance services in an emergency.

In all, about 150 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are deployed across the Ottawa Valley. 

"We're very fortunate to have the military here, and they're a great help. And the Ministry of Natural Resources are here as well," said Moore.

"So we have lots of help, but we needed it this time. The locals are calling it the 500-year flood."

Moore said people who aren't affected have been helping with sandbagging.

About 100 homes have been affected by flooding in the Township of Whitewater Region and about 50 homes have been evacuated, according to Mayor Michael Moore. (Martin Weaver/CBC)

People have been gathering at the Westmeath Recreation Centre for the past three weeks to support those affected by flooding, he added. About 300 people a day are being fed at the centre, all with donated food.

"It's all done by volunteers," said Moore. "When we first started, we thought maybe [it would last] a week or 10 days. But now that we're almost three weeks in, the food is still coming in. So it's wonderful to see the community come together."

He said about 240,000 sandbags have been made available for township residents. Officials are telling people not to remove their sandbags yet as water levels are still high.  

The county is also hosting a town hall Monday afternoon at the Ma-te-Way Activity Centre in Renfrew, Ont., for flood-affected residents who have questions for public officials.

"We've got a long stretch ahead of us. The watershed people are expecting high water in this area up until the first week of June, so it's going to be a long month." Moore said. "[A] very long, discouraging month."

Record water levels

The water levels in Whitewater Region are now the highest ever recorded, surpassing the previous 1960 peak, said Manon Lalonde, executive engineer with the Ottawa River Regulation Secretariat.

Lalonde says that's because of more precipitation: April saw at least twice as much rain as normal, plus there was heavy rain over the last couple of days.

The snow melt was also later than usual, she said.

"There was twice as much snow in the north — and in many locations in the watershed — compared to normal," Lalonde said.

Lalonde said the region would remain vulnerable as reservoirs in northern Quebec are filled with melting snow, and that water is now making its way downstream.

While only light rain is in the forecast, it's possible the area could still see rising water levels.

"We just want people to remain really careful about watching for conditions," she said.

About the Author

Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.

With files from Olivia Stefanovich


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