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Saguenay River: Tide of Destruction

Flash flood ravages a valley

More on the Saguenay River:
Saguenay River:
Essence of French Québec

Aluminum Toil:
The river and its people make the modern metal

A World Apart:
The stronghold of Quebec nationalism

Sad Ballerina:
Beluga whales face extinction from pollution

Left Behind:
Arctic life survives deep in the fjord

Rumours of More:
Fur traders hear tales of distant wealth

Tide of Destruction:
Flash flood ravages a valley

The images are unforgettable: neat, white frame houses with the traditional curved eaves of Quebec roofs, trapped in a raging torrent.

The Saguenay River, tamed by a network of government and company dams, suddenly rebelled against its servitude. An unusual deluge of heavy rainstorms filled the river's drainage basin with an unmanageable runoff. Almost simultaneously, the dams of the Saguenay and its tributaries overflowed.

The town of La Baie nestles in an arc around a bay of the Saguenay. On the morning of July 19, 1996, many of its citizens watched their televisions in anticipation of the opening of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Quebec singer Céline Dion was to sing at the opening ceremonies and most Quebeckers felt they shared in the honour. Few of La Baie's residents gave much thought to the weather forecast which warned of another day of heavy downpour.

By mid-afternoon, saturated hillsides began to slide. Later that night, the first deaths occurred when two children were buried under a mudslide that engulfed their family's home.

The morning light revealed four more victims whose cars had plunged into a water-filled crevice in the roadway. A sailboat in the St. Lawrence River near the Saguenay's mouth at Tadoussac was capsized by a violent rush of water. Three people were killed.

By the time the flood subsided, 10 people were dead, 15,000 were evacuated from their homes, and 250 houses were carried away. Roads and railway lines were washed out. Gone too was the fish ladder at La Baie constructed to allow salmon to climb past a sawmill dam on the Ha! Ha! River. The courses of the Saguenay and its tributaries were permanently changed.

In the region's largest city, Chicoutimi, the raging waters threatened to collapse the beautiful stone buildings of an historic paper mill.

In Jonquière, modern paper mills and aluminum smelters were temporarily shut down because the flood damaged their power and water systems. Tracks of Alcan Aluminum's railway were left suspended in air over a section of washed-out roadbed. Damage to provincially-owned power stations totaled $60 million.

The Canadian Army quickly set up tents to house evacuees. Donations of food, clothing, blankets, and cash were collected across the country for delivery to the flood victims. Some Canadians outside Quebec expressed the hope that their donations would show Quebeckers that Canada was a generous and secure society, even for the region where support for Quebec independence has been most intense.In Montreal, a group of Canadians who arrived as refugees of the war in Vietnam, raised funds for the flood victims, saying they wanted to repay the generosity of Quebeckers who welcomed them 20 years earlier.

Downstream, the surface of the Saguenay was carpeted with the debris of broken houses and lost furniture.

Once the flood waters receded, victims began to question whether the disaster was entirely a natural catastrophe, or one made worse by poor management of the Saguenay region's complex network of dams. Should the dams have been opened to release the rainwater gradually before they overflowed?

The Quebec government ordered an investigation which, several months later, concluded that much of the region's network of dikes and dams was obsolete and in need of urgent modernization.

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