City tells volunteers to take a break as river levels hit peak

The City of Ottawa says it's reached a "turning point" in its flood response efforts and is reducing its volunteer callout this weekend as attention begins to turn towards a long and difficult recovery.

Request comes as Ottawa River levels peak across capital region

Volunteers fill sandbags in Constance Bay on April 30, 2019. With water levels beginning to stabilize, the City of Ottawa is urging people who need a break to take one this weekend. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The City of Ottawa says it's reached a "turning point" in its flood response efforts and is reducing its volunteer callout this weekend as attention begins to turn toward a long and difficult recovery.

City manager Steve Kanellakos made those remarks at a news conference Thursday afternoon, where he urged tired volunteers to "step back [and] take a rest" over the weekend as Ottawa River levels begin to stabilize.

We can't burn out all our volunteers now.- City manager Steve Kanellakos

"We still want volunteers. We're just saying we don't need the same volume," Kanellakos said.

"We're going to be deploying less of them because we want them to come out, after the water recedes, to help with the cleanup effort.... We can't burn out all our volunteers now."

River levels hit their peak across much of the capital region by Thursday afternoon, according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, which controls and measures water levels.

The board told CBC it no longer expects a second peak on the river this spring, as there's not much snow left downriver from Pembroke. 

Senior engineer Michael Sarich said there is still a lot of snow and water in northern reservoirs, but they hope to be able to release that water gradually — which means levels will likely drop slowly, but they shouldn't go back up.

Nevertheless, Sarich said levels will remain "uncomfortably high" for the next while.

While the river appears to be stabilizing in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, both Kanellakos and federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale warned Thursday the recovery will be a lengthy one.

"It won't happen instantly. It's not like flipping a switch," said Goodale, who toured flooded areas in Ottawa and Clarence-Rockland, Ont.

'It's hard to manage'

2 years ago
Clarence-Rockland resident Pierre Voisine says he and his family have been working for 11 days to save their home. 0:43

Accompanied by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and other local officials, Goodale thanked volunteers, emergency crews, the military and municipalities for their work and stressed the need for residents to be careful as the floods crest and slowly recede.

He said it would take time to "recover and rebuild" and that people would need to remain patient.

"There will still be very high water levels. They will be dangerous and cause damage," Goodale said. "The fighting of the flood will have to continue."

Focus on west Ottawa

In Ottawa on Thursday, volunteers were being asked to head only to the rural west end to help communities such as Constance Bay and Fitzroy Harbour, though the mayor said just before noon they had enough for now.

The city has temporarily closed the volunteer centres in the central and eastern areas, leaving only the Dunrobin Community Centre open.

From Friday until Sunday, the city will be accepting a limited number of volunteers there, and will be announcing on social media when enough people have signed up to help.

Despite the decision to scale back the volunteer effort, Kanellakos said he wouldn't recommend lifting the state of emergency until the recovery is well under control — which may not happen until late May or early June.

Across the river, the City of Gatineau had fewer than 100 new flood victims register on Wednesday, half the number that had been showing up in the days before.

The province announced that Quebec government offices that were closed earlier this week would be reopening Friday.

A resident makes his way along Morin Road though floodwaters from the Ottawa River in Cumberland in east Ottawa on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Students join fellow volunteers as they form a sandbag assembly line, fighting to hold back floodwaters on the Ottawa River in Cumberland on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Questions about flood cost

As for the financial toll of the 2019 floods, Kanellakos said the City of Ottawa wouldn't have a final dollar figure until "well after" the flood waters receded.

He did say the federal government was ensuring money would be forthcoming, and that Ontario Premier Doug Ford called Mayor Watson Thursday to reiterate his support.

During his Thursday tour, Goodale pointed to $2 billion in infrastructure money the federal government has set aside to deal with climate change, which could fund better understanding water flows and flood zones and save cleanup money.

The 2019 federal budget included $151.2 million over five years to improve Canada's emergency management systems.

Downstream in Clarence-Rockland, Mayor Guy Desjardins said his community has already used 250,000 sandbags, double what it did in 2017, when it cost $350,000 to clean up.

"We don't have those resources, we're hoping for help," he said, adding he's spoken to the premier and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark about the bill.

With files from Trevor Pritchard, Ryan Tumilty and Radio-Canada