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Regions brace to fight rising flood waters and cases of COVID-19


OTTAWA — The last couple of years have taken on a biblical tone in the rural Pontiac region of Quebec. 

The small community of about 6,000 has recovered from five natural disasters in just two years. Floods and microbursts have wiped out homes, roads and culverts. Last year's tornado was the cherry on the cake.

"Our little municipality has become experts at managing crises," said Mayor Joanne Labadie.

But nothing could prepare them for the possibility of fighting another flood with a global pandemic on their doorstep, she said.

Still, they're getting ready as best they can.

"The challenges of managing a flood with the complexities of COVID-19, it’s daunting," she said.

Pontiac is one of dozens of flood-prone regions bracing for the possibility of rising waters amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Not far across the provincial border, Pontiac's metropolitan neighbours in Ottawa are facing the same worries.

While a flood watch is in effect for some low-lying areas in the region, the overall forecasts have so far been favourable.

Still, officials warn they need to be prepared for the worst since forecasts can change quickly.

The highly contagious COVID-19 poses serious challenges for disaster response, Labadie said.

Traditional evacuation centres, for example, are out of the question because of the need to separate people from each other.

"The current pandemic is changing the way we do business, and managing a possible spring flood will be no exception," Quebec Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault said in a statement.

She warned that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the province will not be able to open emergency shelters as it did last year when thousands were forced from their homes.

Last year in the Pontiac, a seniors home needed to be evacuated because of the rising waters, and the municipality is warning people they need to find a safe alternative in case it happens again.

Ottawa relied on 15,000 volunteers to fill and place sandbags to protect homes and stop the water from washing ashore last year.

But public health directives to keep a distance from one another to stop the spread of COVID-19 has made that prospect nearly impossible.

"It's been very challenging for us to plan and move forward," Ottawa city manager Steve Kanellakos told councillors at a meeting last week.

The city has created separate COVID-19 and flood task forces to prepare, and best practices for fighting surging waters are being adapted to reflect public health recommendations.  

Provinces where non-essential services have shut down might also need to re-evaluate plans to include gravel and sand suppliers in the event of a flood.

Premiers in Manitoba and New Brunswick, two provinces with historically flood prone regions, say they're cautiously optimistic about the latest flood forecasts.

"We're watching it very closely and currently we've had melting conditions that are like a typical March. We hope that continues," New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said last week.

"We will be prepared to deal with a flood situation."

That might mean calling in the military, he said.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military is trying to keep its members healthy so they can respond to disasters if needed.

"We're looking even two, three, four steps ahead to making sure that we have troops prepared," Sajjan said earlier this month. 

In Pontiac, Labadie is also looking to the future, beyond COVID-19 and flood season to the next possible disaster.

"All we can do is hope we don't have a drought this year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 28, 2020.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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