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Saguenay Flood - July 1996

The Saguenay region was familiar with the damage that Mother Nature could bestow, having suffered a massive landslide in May 1971 and a strong earthquake in November 1988. Despite these previous disasters, however, the area was unprepared for the flood and mudslides that hit in mid-July 1996. Many of the region's roads, bridges and other delivery systems for power and water simply disappeared. This was by far the worst catastrophe of the year, and Canada's first billion-dollar natural disaster. It was also the deadliest flood since Toronto's Hurricane Hazel in 1954.

From July 18 to 21, 1996, a huge amount of rain fell. A large low-pressure system sucked up water from the Caribbean and deposited it into the waterways that feed into Quebec's Saguenay River and Lac Saint-Jean. The Saguenay region experienced as much rain in two days as was normal for the whole month of July.

The storm produced the largest-ever overland deluge in Canada during the 20th century, triggering a surge of water, rocks, trees and mud. Reservoirs filled to capacity, dikes eroded into mudslides, and raging rivers ripped away at cliffsides, bridges and buildings. Residents were forced to flee their homes as the waters rose and a violent flow of mud poured into their basements.

Photograph of flood-ravaged buildings in Grande-Baie, Quebec, 1996


Saguenay River flood damage in Grande-Baie, Quebec, 1996

Many houses built on unstable land were destroyed by the flood. City planners had known for years that this land was not safe, but they had conceded to the pressure of developers. By July 22nd, 488 homes had been destroyed, 1,230 damaged and 16,000 people evacuated from the area. The flooding forced almost 12,000 people from their homes. Ten people died in the clay slides created by the torrents.

The extent of the tragedy was staggering. The economic toll was enormous because the disaster happened during the area's peak tourist season. Festivals and celebrations were cancelled due to power outages and washed-out roads, tracks and bridges. The cost was high for other local industries as well; paper production plants and other businesses remained closed for several weeks. The final damage toll reached $700 million. To the insurance industry, it was Canada's worst-ever weather disaster in economic losses. When both insured and uninsured losses were included, as well as indirect costs to the economy, the total losses were estimated to exceed $1.5 billion.

A positive aspect of the Saguenay flood was the tremendous humanitarian reaction of other Canadians to this catastrophe. In this traditional bastion of Quebec nationalism, politics were laid aside as support was welcomed and acknowledged by many in the region.

An inquiry into the flood found that the region's system of dams and dikes, which harnesses maximum energy from the water's flow, was poorly maintained. Recommendations were made to update floodgates, lower reservoir levels and ensure the integrity of dams and dikes. The commission also suggested stopping construction in zones likely to be flooded by 2016. However, with more erratic weather patterns, there is doubt that any of these recommendations will be enough to prevent future catastrophes.

Newspaper article: UN VRAI DÉLUGE

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