Saguenay Flood – 1996

The Saguenay region of Quebec has suffered several natural disasters, including a landslide in 1971 and an earthquake in 1988. These events, however, cannot compare with the disastrous flooding that ripped the region apart in July 1996.

Between July 18-21 a vast storm system halted over the mouth of the St Lawrence River; more rain fell than is usual throughout the entire month. Around the Jonquiere, Chicoutimi and La Baie area of the Saguenay Valley over 20 cm (8 in) of rain fell between the morning of July 19 and the evening of the following day. The ground was already saturated with previous rainfall, and this triggered the catastrophe.

On July 19 the waters in Lake Kenogami began to rise. It was the height of the tourist season and the need to cater for holidaymakers had persuaded the Quebec government to keep the water level in the lake high.

By 03.30 on July 20 the crisis was recognized: engineers were forced to increase the evacuation of water front the dam to levels that they knew would flood houses downstream. Later that morning, Lake Ha!Ha! ruptured its earthen dyke and debris was washed through the forest to the Ha!Ha! River. This swamped a village with mud, rocks and uprooted trees, before hitting La Baie with the force of an explosion, annihilating an entire neighborhood.

Altogether, more than 16,000 people were evacuated, 488 homes were destroyed and 1,230 were badly damaged. Several people were drowned, and others killed by mudslides. An entire shopping mall was swept away, and cars were buried under the layers of mud left, behind. Much of the region’s infrastructure just vanished, making rescue work infinitely more difficult. When all the losses were added up, they were estimated as being in excess of Can$1.5 million – the worst flood in Quebec’s history.

When: July 19-20 1996

Where: The Saguenay region of Quebec, Canada

Death toll: According to official records there were seven fatalities; according to other sources there were ten.

You should know: The Nicolet Commission found that the 7,000 dams, dykes and embankments in the area – often privately owned – had mainly been built pre 1960, had not been upgraded and were poorly maintained. Many homes had been built on areas known to flood. The Commission made various recommendations, but geologists think that climate change will produce more such meteorological extremes, with catastrophic effects.

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