The floods in Saguenay

Quartier du Bassin - Arrondissement Chicoutimi
Photo : Jean-François Leblanc

Before the floods, the Basin neighbourhood in the Chicoutimi sector had 37 residences. After the events, only 14 of them were left; heavily damaged. Sacré-Cœur church, the presbytery and the now famous Little White House are part of what was left by the flood.

56 bâtiments ont été complètement détruitsThe city of Saguenay, district of Chicoutimi, and more particularly the Basin neighbourhood, was heavily hit by the July 1996 floods. All this due to the Chicoutimi River's flash flood. The downtown area's economic activities were slowed down and many residents of the sector were evacuated.

Important infrastructures were destroyed, or at least heavily damaged. For instance, the Pont-Arnaud and Garneau Falls dams were bypassed by the raging waters of the Chicoutimi River, provoking the total destruction of the pumping stations and the municipal water supply point. One of the access ramps of the Dubuc bridge, linking the North and South shore of the Saguenay river, was cut in half.

Altogether, 16 businesses suffered enough damages for them to close their doors for over 14 days. 49 others were also damaged but not as hard. The torrential flood caused damages to cultural buildings and equipment, tourist and recreational sites, and even to some of our national heritage.

Photo : Jean Briand
In the Chicoutimi sector alone, 56 buildings were completely destroyed. A total of 4 000 people were evacuated for periods of a few hours to as long as two weeks.

The Chicoutimi River was considerably modified as a result of the force of the water. It dug a trench of a depth of 18 metres in the Garneau Falls sector.

In order to limit the level of water in the Kénogami barrier lake, the Portage-des-Roches dam opened its floodgates. As a result, the flow of the Chicoutimi River was considerably raised. It went from 100 cu. Metres per second (m3/s) before the flood to 1 200 cu. Meters per second at the most.

After the floodgates of the Portage-des-Roches dam were opened, all the dams located downstream on the Chicoutimi River were flooded. One of these, the Garneau Falls dam, hit a critical pour out level around noon on July 20th 1996; less than an hour later, the Pont-Arnaud dam had the same fate. By the end of the afternoon of July 21st 1996, the concrete structures of these dams were still intact, but the water had found a way through the mud.

The Chute-à-Garneau and Pont-Arnaud dams have a lower evacuation capacity than the Portage-des-Roches dam. When the latter evacuated its water, a funnel effect was created.

A security perimeter was delimited in the downtown area of the Chicoutimi district as well as the Basin neighbourhood for immediate security measures. Over 600 people coming from 250 commercial and residential buildings were evacuated. This evacuation lasted 3 days.

Quartier du Bassin - Arrondissement Chicoutimi
Photo : Alcan
In July 1996, the place name of "Chicoutimi" found its true meaning. It means: "Where the deep waters end" in the Innu language…

A few weeks after the floods, onlookers from all over Quebec came to see the devastation and the extent of the damage.
Located on the Chicoutimi riverside, the Pulperie museum and historic site was heavily struck by the river's fury. Some stone walls, landscaping, interpretation and service infrastructures that were considerably damaged had to be restored. The Pulperie site had to close its doors for many days.

Who hasn't seen the Little White House stand firm in the midst of Chicoutimi River's furious flow. This home quickly became a symbol of resistance, courage and determination for Saguenay's population. While most of the Basin's homes were swept away by the current, the Little White House resisted to this raging nature.

Photo : Jean-François Leblanc
Why did such a small centennial home resist to the force of the water when some of its neighbours were swept away? First of all, when the Kénogami barrier lake was risen at the beginning of the century, the owners of the house took precautions and rose the building on higher concrete foundations. Was this a premonition that one day the Kénogami lake would flow over? Moreover, the house was built on solid rock, a part of which is jutting out and thus deviated the water , protecting the foundations.

The Little White House of Gédéon Street will remain in the collective memory of the Saguenay population for a long time.

The biggest paradox of the floods in the Saguenay region was... the lack of water! For instance, in the Chicoutimi district, the water supply point feeding the filtration plant was completely ripped out by the sheer force of the Chicoutimi River's current. The water reserve was of 36 million litres, which is to say that after 6 to 8 hours the aqueduct network would have been completely dry. On top of this, at the height of the flood, over 3 600 people had no electricity, some 1 600 in the downtown area, apart from the 4 900 telephone circuits that were cut off.

In order to be able to supply the Chicoutimi district in fresh water, the municipal authorities had to call upon a series of pumps, which were plunged into the Chicoutimi River with an excavator. Twenty-four hours later, despite very murky water, the fresh water reserves were back to normal.

The filtration plant
District of Chicoutimi
Photo : Technical Services, District of Chicoutimi