Richelieu River Residents On High Alert As Lake Champlain Threatens To Spill

Richelieu River

First Posted: 05/24/11 01:27 PM ET Updated: 07/24/11 06:12 AM ET

(CBC) -- Towns and cities along the Richelieu River are on high alert as strong winds force water from Lake Champlain to spill into the river southeast of Montreal.

Southerly winds reaching speeds of up to 80 km/h on Monday pushed water levels higher than the all-time record set on May 6.

Rain and wind have been causing the river to rise steadily since Sunday with some areas along the shoreline going up four centimetres, while others have seen the water rise as much as 10 centimetres.

At 10 a.m. ET Monday, France-Sylvie Loiselle, a civil security spokesperson for the Montérégie region, said the river was just seven centimetres shy of the record.

She added the levels would come down quickly as winds died down. But water could rise another 20 centimetres overnight.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who was in the region again Monday, said the number of soldiers helping with the relief effort will double to about 500.

As many as 3,000 homes have been flooded and nearly 1,000 people have been forced out since the flooding began five weeks ago.

Charles Leblanc said he's worried about losing his house as he stands in rainboots watching catfish swimming in his front yard in the town of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu.

"Our terrain has been submerged with water for like a month now," he said. "The more we are flooded, the more we have damage to our house."

Upriver in the town of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the only way to get to Nadine Galipeau's house on O'Cain Street is to walk through knee-high water. Her front door is blocked by sandbags.

Galipeau has been watching water from the river stream into her now-gutted basement for weeks and she's taken a leave from her job as a teacher to properly monitor her house.

"It's never ending, we're fed up and we're feeling helpless," she said.

Mayors ask that flood law be revised

During a tour of the region on Saturday, Charest said that, so far, the provincial government has spent about $4 million to help flood victims.

Charest also said the government is considering increasing the compensation amount it gives to flood victims, which is currently capped at $150,000.

Local mayors want Quebec to consider revising something else: its law on flood zones.

In 2007, Quebec adopted a law preventing people from rebuilding if they live in a 0/20 flood zone said Sylvain Latour, head of the mayor's cabinet in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

It means the house is at risk of flooding within 20 years, explains Latour.

He confirms 2,200 homes in his municipality have been inspected, so far, and about 100 are so badly damaged they may have to be torn down.

Some of those homes are in the 0/20 zone.

"The mayors are asking to sit down with the government this week ... to allow people to rebuild with restrictions," he said.

"For example, elevated homes or no basement," said Latour.

Gerard Dutil, mayor of St-Paul-de-l'Île-aux-Noix, said half his town's homes have been damaged by water and some 200 houses have had to be evacuated.

"It's not easy," he said. "They travel by boat to get to work, they travel by boat to send their kids to school and to get the groceries."

Dutil also hopes any homes that have to be torn down can be rebuilt.

"Whatever decision [is] taken [I hope] it is not going to have the effect of those people moving out of our municipality," he said.

"We need those people... and we should take a decision that will allow them to stay there."

The regional director of Quebec's civil security service, Yvan Leroux, said there is concern now about the mental health of flood victims.

"We know the situation has been difficult and that it can lead to stress and exhaustion," he told reporters.

Leroux said health officials and counselling services are in place to help residents cope.

with files from The Canadian Press

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