Planned Retreat in Pointe Gatineau

Pointe Gatineau, QC has been in existence in one form or another for over 200 years. Located at the confluence of the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers, the community has had a long history of flooding. After an approximately 40-year quiet period, two record floods occurred in April 2017 and May 2019, inundating the community and triggering planned retreat via two successive waves of home buyouts that continue to this day. Following the 2017 flood, provincial legislation banned home reconstruction in the 1:20 floodplain, and within weeks, the Quebec government facilitated planned retreat through a special 2017 flood-related program that expanded on its standard “Financial Assistance for Disaster Victims” program.

Planned retreat is part of a larger five-step climate change adaptation strategy:

  • Understanding climate impacts
  • Assessing risks and vulnerabilities
  • Identifying and selecting adaption (PARA framework) options to:
    • Protect: reduce likelihood of exposure to climate change hazards and impacts (such as floods)
    • Accommodate: reduce vulnerability (or increase resilience) of population or infrastructure
    • Retreat: relocate at-risk populations or infrastructure to low-risk areas
    • Avoid: use community plans and zoning by-laws to build future housing, businesses and critical infrastructure preferentially (or only) in lower-risk areas
  • Implement actions
  • Monitor and adapt

Planned retreat is intended to act in unison with a host of actions that support adaptation and resilience in communities. Climate change impacts are highly location specific, planned retreat could be part of a larger strategy employed to adapt to coastal or overland flooding, wildfires, snow and ice cover, permafrost degradation, freshwater availability and others.

Planned retreat in the Pointe Gatineau community can best be summarized as being carried out reactively in the face of repeated flood disasters, funded by a combination of municipal, provincial and federal government funding.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Portions of the Pointe Gatineau community are established in what is now considered to be a 1:20-year floodplain. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the community experienced regular (and, some sources suggest, “annual”) flooding, the most severe of which (1876) swept away 30 houses and caused another 200 houses to be abandoned. Although the construction of upstream locks (1911) and hydropower dams (1920 and 1964) reduced the frequency of flooding, significant flood events continued to be experienced by the community, including in 1926, 1947, 1951, 1974 and 1976.

Water levels are monitored along the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers at 9 monitoring stations. The closest monitoring station to Pointe Gatineau is the Rivière Gatineau – Quai des Artistes, rue Jacques-Cartier, secteur de Gatineau, at the Confluence of Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers.

The floods of 2017 and 2019 had a major impact on the Pointe Gatineau community. Approximately 1,800 homes were affected by flooding in the wider Gatineau municipality during the spring 2017 floods, with the Pointe Gatineau neighbourhood being hit particularly hard, and flooding in the spring of 2019 exceeded the record set in 2017.

Planned retreat in the Pointe Gatineau community can best be summarized as being carried out reactively in the face of repeated flood disasters, funded by a combination of municipal, provincial and federal government funding.

Identifying Actions

Following the 2017 flood, provincial legislation banned home reconstruction in the 1:20 floodplain and the Quebec government facilitated planned retreat through a special 2017 flood-related program that piggybacked on its standard “Financial Assistance for Disaster Victims” program. The special program offered up to $200,000 in home buyout funding to residents whose homes were significantly damaged, with an additional $50,000 for the lot/land (Canadian Underwriter, 2017). Within four weeks post-flood, the City of Gatineau mobilized to assist homeowners by waiving administration fees and speeding up the application process for demolition and construction permits.

In mid-April 2019, just as record spring flooding again began to inundate Pointe Gatineau, the province announced a new disaster relief program expressly facilitating planned retreat by setting “hard caps on the amount of compensation available to homeowners in flood zones, with the goal of encouraging them to move elsewhere”. The 2019 flood program stipulated that, once home flood damages surpassed 50% of the home’s value or exceeded $100,000, homeowners would be offered either up to $100,000 to rebuild or $200,000 plus $50,000 to relocate to another property. If homeowners were outside the 1:20-year floodplain and chose to rebuild, the $100,000 compensation became a lifetime limit on flood compensation (i.e. the limit would apply to the home title in perpetuity, and any future flood damages would only be compensated if the home had not yet reached the $100,000 limit).

Implementation

Planned retreat in Pointe Gatineau has unfolded slowly and with limited guidance and support for residents wishing to relocate. The initial round of 2017 buyout applications was completed several months after the spring floods, yet many residents reported that they still had not had their applications processed by the following winter of 2018, with some reporting delays that lasted into 2019. Delays were also a factor simply due to the sheer scale of the flood disaster, as it took many months for Quebec public safety department inspectors to examine all flooded properties and issue the damage assessment paperwork needed to initiate buyout applications.

Other than several municipal assistance programs (waiving fees, speeding up demolition projects), there is little evidence to suggest that flooded homeowners had significant ongoing support or assistance throughout the planned retreat process. Residents were not offered assistance in terms of the relocation process from understanding where to relocate, and what neighbourhoods were considered safe. The lengthy program delays have generally been ascribed to a combination of a convoluted/bureaucratic application process, lack of guidance or on-the-ground support for applicants and, in some cases, long turnaround times once applications were submitted.The lengthy program delays have generally been ascribed to a combination of a convoluted/bureaucratic application process, lack of guidance or on-the-ground support for applicants and, in some cases, long turnaround times once applications were submitted.

In mid-2018, the City of Gatineau began a series of community engagement and visioning events focused on post-retreat community redevelopment for what might be called the “retreated lands,” meaning the empty lots and deurbanized landscape left behind by the planned retreat. Community outreach programs included community walks to reimagine post-flood and post-retreat liveability, and workshops held since have demonstrated how other communities (e.g. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Sandy in Coastal New York/New Jersey) have responded to planned retreat.

Outcomes and Monitoring Process

As of November 2019, over 185 home and condominium owners in Pointe Gatineau or the wider Gatineau municipality had accepted buyouts, and empty lots currently dot low-lying areas of the community in what is often called a “Swiss-cheese pattern” of retreat. Although the planned retreat in Pointe Gatineau has primarily involved single detached homes, the record flooding of spring 2019 structurally damaged a 16-unit condominium that was subsequently bought out and demolished, with all residents moving to other properties.

The final cost of the planned retreat/buyout programs in Pointe Gatineau has not yet been tallied, given that buyouts continue, but using the $250,000 maximum compensation per property and multiplying by the 185 properties that have already been bought out, a figure surpassing $30–50 million would not be unexpected. The Quebec government has approached the Federal government through its Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) program for help in offsetting the cost of the community’s ongoing retreat efforts (CP24, 2019).

Next Steps

Lessons learned in this case are twofold. Firstly, government officials implementing a post-disaster planned retreat program should expect that impacted homeowners will need significant support and guidance to navigate program requirements and the retreat process generally. This might include the provision of dedicated on-the-ground support staff to help homeowners with their retreat decision, walk homeowners through every step of the buyout process, assist homeowners with their search for new homes, and navigate unexpected roadblocks in the application process. Secondly, a municipal process that engages the community in transparent decision-making about post-retreat lands and the resulting community landscape can go a long way towards helping communities maintain resiliency in the face of both disaster and planned retreat.

Resources


Understanding and Assessing Impacts

Portions of the Pointe Gatineau community are established in what is now considered to be a 1:20-year floodplain. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the community experienced regular (and, some sources suggest, “annual”) flooding, the most severe of which (1876) swept away 30 houses and caused another 200 houses to be abandoned. Although the construction of upstream locks (1911) and hydropower dams (1920 and 1964) reduced the frequency of flooding, significant flood events continued to be experienced by the community, including in 1926, 1947, 1951, 1974 and 1976.

Water levels are monitored along the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers at 9 monitoring stations. The closest monitoring station to Pointe Gatineau is the Rivière Gatineau – Quai des Artistes, rue Jacques-Cartier, secteur de Gatineau, at the Confluence of Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers.

The floods of 2017 and 2019 had a major impact on the Pointe Gatineau community. Approximately 1,800 homes were affected by flooding in the wider Gatineau municipality during the spring 2017 floods, with the Pointe Gatineau neighbourhood being hit particularly hard, and flooding in the spring of 2019 exceeded the record set in 2017.

Planned retreat in the Pointe Gatineau community can best be summarized as being carried out reactively in the face of repeated flood disasters, funded by a combination of municipal, provincial and federal government funding.

Identifying Actions

Following the 2017 flood, provincial legislation banned home reconstruction in the 1:20 floodplain and the Quebec government facilitated planned retreat through a special 2017 flood-related program that piggybacked on its standard “Financial Assistance for Disaster Victims” program. The special program offered up to $200,000 in home buyout funding to residents whose homes were significantly damaged, with an additional $50,000 for the lot/land (Canadian Underwriter, 2017). Within four weeks post-flood, the City of Gatineau mobilized to assist homeowners by waiving administration fees and speeding up the application process for demolition and construction permits.

In mid-April 2019, just as record spring flooding again began to inundate Pointe Gatineau, the province announced a new disaster relief program expressly facilitating planned retreat by setting “hard caps on the amount of compensation available to homeowners in flood zones, with the goal of encouraging them to move elsewhere”. The 2019 flood program stipulated that, once home flood damages surpassed 50% of the home’s value or exceeded $100,000, homeowners would be offered either up to $100,000 to rebuild or $200,000 plus $50,000 to relocate to another property. If homeowners were outside the 1:20-year floodplain and chose to rebuild, the $100,000 compensation became a lifetime limit on flood compensation (i.e. the limit would apply to the home title in perpetuity, and any future flood damages would only be compensated if the home had not yet reached the $100,000 limit).

Implementation

Planned retreat in Pointe Gatineau has unfolded slowly and with limited guidance and support for residents wishing to relocate. The initial round of 2017 buyout applications was completed several months after the spring floods, yet many residents reported that they still had not had their applications processed by the following winter of 2018, with some reporting delays that lasted into 2019. Delays were also a factor simply due to the sheer scale of the flood disaster, as it took many months for Quebec public safety department inspectors to examine all flooded properties and issue the damage assessment paperwork needed to initiate buyout applications.

Other than several municipal assistance programs (waiving fees, speeding up demolition projects), there is little evidence to suggest that flooded homeowners had significant ongoing support or assistance throughout the planned retreat process. Residents were not offered assistance in terms of the relocation process from understanding where to relocate, and what neighbourhoods were considered safe. The lengthy program delays have generally been ascribed to a combination of a convoluted/bureaucratic application process, lack of guidance or on-the-ground support for applicants and, in some cases, long turnaround times once applications were submitted.The lengthy program delays have generally been ascribed to a combination of a convoluted/bureaucratic application process, lack of guidance or on-the-ground support for applicants and, in some cases, long turnaround times once applications were submitted.

In mid-2018, the City of Gatineau began a series of community engagement and visioning events focused on post-retreat community redevelopment for what might be called the “retreated lands,” meaning the empty lots and deurbanized landscape left behind by the planned retreat. Community outreach programs included community walks to reimagine post-flood and post-retreat liveability, and workshops held since have demonstrated how other communities (e.g. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Sandy in Coastal New York/New Jersey) have responded to planned retreat.

Outcomes and Monitoring Process

As of November 2019, over 185 home and condominium owners in Pointe Gatineau or the wider Gatineau municipality had accepted buyouts, and empty lots currently dot low-lying areas of the community in what is often called a “Swiss-cheese pattern” of retreat. Although the planned retreat in Pointe Gatineau has primarily involved single detached homes, the record flooding of spring 2019 structurally damaged a 16-unit condominium that was subsequently bought out and demolished, with all residents moving to other properties.

The final cost of the planned retreat/buyout programs in Pointe Gatineau has not yet been tallied, given that buyouts continue, but using the $250,000 maximum compensation per property and multiplying by the 185 properties that have already been bought out, a figure surpassing $30–50 million would not be unexpected. The Quebec government has approached the Federal government through its Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements (DFAA) program for help in offsetting the cost of the community’s ongoing retreat efforts (CP24, 2019).

Next Steps

Lessons learned in this case are twofold. Firstly, government officials implementing a post-disaster planned retreat program should expect that impacted homeowners will need significant support and guidance to navigate program requirements and the retreat process generally. This might include the provision of dedicated on-the-ground support staff to help homeowners with their retreat decision, walk homeowners through every step of the buyout process, assist homeowners with their search for new homes, and navigate unexpected roadblocks in the application process. Secondly, a municipal process that engages the community in transparent decision-making about post-retreat lands and the resulting community landscape can go a long way towards helping communities maintain resiliency in the face of both disaster and planned retreat.

Resources