Get ready for the next flood (you know it’s coming)

Published: April 28, 2020 · Updated: April 29, 2020

Jeff Blackmer remembers the time Robertson Point, N.B., was covered in water and his family cottage nearly didn’t make it. During the massive flood of 2008, the rising waters of Grand Lake climbed three feet up the walls and sloshed through the modest two-bedroom bungalow, destroying furniture and flooring. The cottage survived, but just barely. 

The structure narrowly missed complete destruction, but Jeff’s father, John, who still owned it then, faced a difficult decision. Should he simply repair the damages to his beloved cottage, which he’d purchased in 1957, or should he go farther and invest more heavily to prepare for possible future floods? In the end, he decided to go all the way. He moved the cottage 20 feet back from the shore and raised it four feet higher onto a solid concrete foundation, one foot higher than the peak flood level in 1973, the worst on record. Even as he took these steps, he wondered if he was being too extreme. 

The neighbours laughed. “Are you building a treehouse?” they asked. Most of the other cottages in Robertson Point sat unsecured on cinder blocks. Admittedly, the community is in a flood plain, so some amount of flooding was to be expected. They were accustomed to seeing the waters rise, though rarely to the point that they felt nervous. But 2008 was a “one-in-100 year” flood, and it had come and gone. Most people assumed they wouldn’t see another one that bad for a long time. And anyways, they’d surely pull through next time, as they had before. 

But, in the spring of 2018, just 10 years later, the waters of Grand Lake rose again to an unprecedented height, surpassing the 2008 levels and beating even the 1973 record. Swollen with massive spring snowmelt following a sudden warm spell after a long, cold winter, the Saint John River overtopped its banks and inundated the surrounding flood plain. On May 5th, at the peak of the flood, a heavy windstorm sent large waves crashing through living room windows. Many of the cottages at Robertson Point were pushed off their foundations and filled with murky, debris-filled floodwater. Cottages floated into neighbours’ yards or were pulled down onto the beach and demolished by the wind and waves. 

Of the 55 cottages on Robertson Point, more than half were destroyed or severely damaged by the 2018 Saint John River flood. “It was unimaginable,” Jeff told me when I visited Robertson Point later that summer, recalling the destruction as we drove past empty lots once occupied by the cottages of friends he’d known his whole life. After the flood, debris was piled eight or 10 feet high on either side of the road. By then, cleanup crews had disposed of the remnants of the cottages, with garbage trucks coming constantly, day after day, leaving behind broken glass and splinters of wood to cut the feet of anyone foolish enough to walk without shoes. “Normally, down here on a summer day, it’d be wall-to-wall people,” Jeff said. It was a gorgeous August day, but the beach was nearly empty, and no one was in the water. Even three months after the catastrophe, most people were still busy cleaning up. The rest were simply gone.  

Jeff took over the family cottage in 2016, shortly before his dad died. It was a difficult decision—Jeff, his wife, Susan, and their two children, Claire and Joseph, live in Ottawa. Maintaining a cottage from a 10-hour drive away requires a serious commitment. But when both kids told him how much they loved the place, Jeff knew it was important to hold on to it. “They independently said it was their favourite place in the world.”

For his part, Jeff grew up going there every summer, and it feels like home. Robertson Point is an unpretentious, close-knit community. Even in the aftermath of the flood, the social atmosphere is congenial and open. The cottages are simple, surrounded by a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees. Cottagers own their dwellings, but the land they sit on is leased from the Robertson family. “This piece of land has been in our family since the 1770s,” says Elizabeth Kwiecien, who acts as the main go-to person for the cottagers, she and her sister having taken over from her uncle, who died last fall. The property was an active farm until 2015, but her great-grandfather started leasing plots for cottages back in the 1920s, and their descendants still come, she says: “Once you’re here, you don’t want to leave.” 

Now the Blackmers’ cottage looks a little more secluded than it used to. Two cottages on either side of it were completely swept away. One left a fireplace behind, standing alone under the trees whose branches had once stretched over the roof. Parts of those cottages are still washing up on shore, especially after another round of flooding this past spring.   Nine more cottages had to be torn down, and 24 others were heavily damaged and needed major renovations. “When this first happened, there were piles of debris everywhere. There’s a large field with cottages all around it. It was just covered in sheds and decks and docks,” Jeff says. A bulldozer was brought in to clear the rubble. The Blackmers’ cottage was the only one along their side of the point that wasn’t devastated by the flood.

All over the world, flooding is getting more frequent, more intense, and harder to predict. In the last 20 years, two billion people on the planet have been severely affected by flooding, says John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and the director of Global Water Futures Initiative at the University of Saskatchewan. The problem is pronounced in Canada, where warming is happening at twice the global rate, especially in Western and Northern Canada: a 2.3 degree increase in the North since around 1950, which is roughly three times the global mean warming rate. 

The rise of the frequency and intensity of flooding in recent years is most evident in the climbing cost of damages. “In the last few years, flood damages have been increasing dramatically around the globe and also in Canada,” says Pomeroy. From Confederation until the year 2000, flood damages cost Canadians a total of a billion dollars, partly due to this rise in flooding, and partly because our shores are more built up than in the past. Since 2000, it’s been running at about a billion dollars a year, 10 times the allotted annual budget of $100 million for the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program. Three-quarters of the money the federal government spends on disaster relief goes to flood-related damages. 

The rise in severe rainstorms and flash flooding in Canada has several causes, but climate change is the biggest. Simply put, when you heat up the atmosphere of a planet that’s 70 per cent water, you get more rain. The heat draws more water from oceans and bodies of water as evaporation, and as the air gets warmer, it can hold more water vapour, explains Pomeroy. When these moisture-laden warm fronts run into a cold front, they create multiple-day, high-intensity storms. The storms form slowly and, with our improved modelling tools, can be predicted weeks in advance. But their sluggish nature also means they linger over an area and drop a huge amount of water, explains Pomeroy, saying, “These are the ones where it rains day after day after day.”

Flooding isn’t only happening more often; it’s also occurring at times of the year and in locations where it wouldn’t have otherwise, says Pomeroy. For example, Saskatchewan usually experiences flooding during spring snowmelt, but in 2014, the province saw one of its worst floods in history—in July. That flood was entirely caused by heavy rain. 

“We’re supercharging the water cycle,” says Louise Comeau, a research associate in the faculty of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick. Not only does global warming cause more rain, but other aspects of climate change combine to make flooding worse and more likely, such as warmer oceans that energize storms and earlier, warmer springs that make the snow melt faster, which is what contributed to the 2018 flood along the Saint John River. 

As our climate reality transforms, the way we talk about the weather—and about the risk of flooding—needs to evolve too. We typically use the language of the one-in-100-year flood, or one-in-500, and so on, but these terms are commonly misunderstood. A one-in-100-year flood doesn’t mean that this sort of flood occurs once every 100 years; rather, it means there is a one per cent chance of a flood of that degree in any given year. If you’ve had a one-in-100-year flood this year, you don’t have a century to wait for the next one. 

Those probabilities aren’t only hard to understand, they’re also changing. Flood risk chances are calculated using available measurements from stream flow, some going back 100 years, sometimes only 20. “There are two problems with using this historical data,” Pomeroy explains. “One is that even to calculate those types of probabilities, we need 200 or 300 years of record, and, of course, we don’t have that data. The other is that the chances of these things occurring in the past that we’ve measured is not the chance of them occurring in the present or future because of the changing climate.” Consequently, many of the flood-risk maps are out of date. 

Despite the sharp increase in flooding, many Canadians still don’t have a realistic outlook on their exposure to disaster. “Most people don’t realize they’re vulnerable until the first time they’re flooded,” says Blair Feltmate, the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. Flood risk doesn’t simply affect those with homes or cottages in coastal regions and flood-risk zones. In fact, the greatest damages have occurred in the Prairie provinces. The 2013 Calgary flood alone cost more than $6 billion. 

Just as Canadians often fail to realize their risk factor, Feltmate believes that many people don’t know their insurance options for reducing that risk (see “Insurance Basics,” opposite). The obvious first step is to find out how much insurance coverage you have for basement flooding, and to consider improving your policy. However, cottage owners may find some “named perils,” such as flooding and vandalism, are difficult to get included in their policy or more expensive, due to part-time occupancy, and may have to shop around if their company doesn’t provide what they need. 

With so little support, cottage owners must take a proactive approach to protecting their property from flooding. (Go here for tips to protect your cottage from water damage). Fewer than a third of respondents to a survey by the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change said that they used basic flood protection like a sump pump and water-resistant materials. Not only will prevention save you the headache, but insurance companies will take note of flood-mitigating steps you take and lower your premiums accordingly. 

For UNB’s Comeau, taking charge of your own flood protection boils down to three directives: go back, go up, and retain your green. The Blackmers took care of the first two when they relocated their cottage away from the shore and raised the foundation, a costly move that was well worth it in the end. Speaking of his dad’s decision, Jeff says, “He made those changes at considerable expense, and that’s literally the only reason this cottage is still standing.” 

8 things every cottager can do to get ready for flooding

There’s no escaping the fact that as nature changes, humans will need to change as well. That includes how we use our cottages. In the Robertson Point community, one family had fully winterized their cottage, but the rising waters ruined their insulation and drywall. Once they had gutted it down to the studs, they decided not to re-winterize. Instead, they’re treating it like a camp, with just the sheet-board walls. That way, if the flood waters return, the damage will be minimal. 

Another adaptive approach corresponds to Comeau’s third suggestion: retain your green. That is, take a more natural approach to landscaping, and if you have a shoreline, go for the wild look. “Cottagers are cutting away too much of the trees and shrubbery on the shore for the sake of their view, and that is making people a lot more vulnerable to flooding,” she says. The areas near and immediately next to the waterfront provide a critical buffer that helps protect your cottage from flooding (while as a bonus providing needed habitat for wildlife, preventing shoreline erosion, and improving the water quality). Nature’s infrastructure does a better job at managing water flow than rocks and hardscaping, says Comeau, and it’s cheaper too.

After touring the recovery efforts at Robertson Point with Jeff, I took a stroll along the beach. Everywhere I turned, I found signs of domestic life, still drifting up on shore months after the flood: teakettles and coffee makers, lamps and side tables, waterlogged books, and washed-out photographs. Grand Lake offers a gorgeous view, though underneath its now-placid surface it had secreted away the belongings of thousands of New Brunswickers. It was easy to see why we’re so drawn to waterfronts like this one, but as I picked out the remains of cottages from the sand and rocks, it was also clear that this relationship is changing, just as the weather is changing around us.   

As spring approached in 2019, bringing with it the threat of flooding all over again, Jeff found himself feeling much more anxious than he had in past years. By March, he had begun to nervously watch weather reports from New Brunswick, something he’d never done before so early in the season. “Before last spring, I had never thought about water levels and snowpack levels at this stage, and now I find myself doing that,” Jeff says. “There’s a sense of nervousness that wasn’t there before.”

After another round of flooding this past spring [2019], Elizabeth Kwiecien and others at Robertson Point say that feeling is only heightened. She held off doing major renovations to her cottage until she saw what 2019 would hold, but has now begun in earnest. Others in the community have also taken the wait-and-see approach: “Some people say it’s once in a lifetime. Others are saying no, this is climate change,” says Elizabeth.

Jeff feels a sense of loss when he thinks about the families that he has known for decades who will now no longer spend their summers at Robertson Point. But many others are planning to rebuild or do major renovations that use flood-mitigation strategies. “That speaks to the importance they place on the cottages and to the community,” he says. “The real test is going to come in the next few years. If this becomes a trend, people can’t do this every year. That’s the big unknown.” 

This story was originally published in the October 2019 issue of Cottage Life

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