Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Repeated flooding in Pointe-Gatineau: From living neighbourhood to wasteland

March 2024

Ariane Hamel, master’s student in social work, (Université du Québec en Outaouais) and Nathalie St-Amour, professor in social work, (Université du Québec en Outaouais)


Climate change has been generating a growing number of extreme weather events. In 2023 alone, Canada faced major floods in several provinces, a historic forest fire season, and a higher-than-usual number of tornadoes. Recurring disasters like these require the mobilization of significant human and financial resources. They also have wide-ranging impacts on the people and communities involved (Fulton & Drolet, 2018; Généreux et al., 2019; Howard et al., 2018; Subedi et al., 2020). Socio-economically disadvantaged communities are especially vulnerable to the destructive effects of such disasters, due to factors that include social isolation and a lack of financial or other resources for protecting themselves (Boetto et al., 2021; Choi et al., 2022; Deria et al., 2020; Hallegatte et al., 2020). Consider the case of Pointe-Gatineau. One of Gatineau’s oldest neighbourhoods, it was hit by major floods in 2017, 2019, and 2023. As a result, a large number of homes have been demolished and numerous families have moved away, including many that had lived in the area for generations. Poorer residents are more likely to have left the neighbourhood, as witness by the fact that median pre-tax income for individuals aged 15 and older rose from $29,800 in 2015 to $37,200 in 2020 (Observatoire du développement de l’Outaouais, 2023). This context provides an interesting opportunity for studying the recovery process of people living in a community that has faced repeated disasters, including an assessment of the role played by place attachment.

State of the Academic Literature

Disadvantaged Communities and Cumulative Disaster Exposure

Scholars have recently begun to show interest in the concept of consecutive disasters, which refers to the occurrence of a disaster in a geographical area still recovering from one or more previous disasters (de Ruiter et al., 2020). Some studies have shown that cumulative disaster exposure can increase distress among victims, and that consecutive disasters can impact the resilience of those who face constant adversity (Dean & Stain, 2010; Lowe et al., 2019). But others have suggested that individuals who are repeatedly exposed to disasters develop stronger coping abilities (Guessoum et al., 2020). Alongside cumulative disaster exposure, other factors can shape the recovery process. They include a person’s socio-economic status and victum support measures put in place by municipal and provincial governments (Maltais et al., 2022). Meanwhile, flooding has been identified as the type of disaster with the broadest range of potential impacts on victims (Collins et al., 2018). The variation in findings across studies can best be explained by the lack of existing literature on the topic (French et al., 2019; Jacobs & Harville, 2015). Only a handful of studies have focused on the characteristics of socio-economically disadvantaged residents in communities that have experienced consecutive disasters. For instance, Fortin et al. (2020) have noted that a mix of economic and social vulnerabilities impairs the ability of such individuals to anticipate disasters and recover from them. Moreover, damage to community facilities in low-income areas has been linked a higher risk of depression and post-traumatic stress among disaster victims. Not only do such facilities help maintain a sense of community by continuing to play their pre-disaster roles, but they can also support the delivery of services during and after a disaster (Hirth et al., 2013; Lalani & Drolet, 2019).

The Impact of Disasters on Place Attachment

Having a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood can make disaster victims more likely to participate in community recovery efforts (Bouchard-Bastien & Brisson, 2018; Haney, 2018). It may also influence an individual’s personal disaster recovery process (Chamlee-Wright & Storr, 2009; Cox & Perry, 2011). For instance, Silver and Grek-Martin (2015) have studied the recovery process in Goderich, Ontario, after a tornado destroyed the village centre. Affected residents emphasized the importance of leveraging place attachment in discussions around community recovery. The study even found that, in the wake of a disaster, the loss of a familiar landscape can have a greater psychological impact than the loss of personal property. In a more recent study, Monteil et al. (2020) have argued that a poorly managed reconstruction effort can introduce new vulnerabilities and undermine long-term disaster recovery.

Considering these various findings and given the growing frequency of climate change-related disasters, I set out to better document and understand (1) the recovery process among those living in a socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhood affected by successive disasters (flooding in 2017 and 2019) and (2) the role of place attachment in this process. The next section describes the methodological and conceptual frameworks used to achieve these objectives.

Case, Methods, and Original Research Data

Although place attachment is a familiar concept in the literature (Raymond et al., 2010; Sébastien, 2016), exploring the relationship with places of personal or community significance destroyed in a disaster represents a novel field of study (Silver & Grek-Martin, 2015). This is all the more true in Quebec. My analysis drew on two conceptual models for understanding place attachment: (1) the four-dimensional model developed by Raymond et al. (2010) and (2) the five-dimensional model of “home” developed by Cox and Perry (2011). The various components of both models are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Components of place attachment

Reference : Raymond et al., 2010 et Cox et Perry, 2011.

Figure 1 : Concept map. The disaster recovery process as a function of place attachment

Credit : A. Hamel, 2023

As for recovery, it can be understood as a non-linear process that, according to the model developed by Cox and Perry (2011), consists of disorientation and reorientation phases. “Disorientation” refers to the loss of geographical and psychological bearings, which interrupts the experience of having a home and the associated identity. As for “reorientation,” it is defined in terms of rebuilding an identity in a familiar place that has been irrevocably altered. Over the long term, the recovery process involves a cycle of intersecting phases of disorientation and reorientation, as disaster victims gradually adjust to their “new normal.” The following concept map (Figure 1) illustrates the conceptual Framework’s three main categories of place attachment: home, community and environment.

My study involved conducting semi-structured interviews with residents of Pointe-Gatineau who had lived through the 2017 and 2019 floods. After being temporarily interrupted due to last spring’s floods, new interviews took place in the summer and fall of 2023, but the preliminary results presented in this synthesis report on the analysis of four interviews that took place before the 2023 floods (two people who decided to stay in the neighborhood after the floods and two people who left after the 2019 floods). Analysis will begin shortly on the data collected through these new interviews.

Preliminary Results

Socio-economically Vulnerable Communities

In line with the literature, observations made by research participants show how, compared to better-off segments of society, socio-economically vulnerable populations are at greater risk of experiencing adverse effects from flooding.[1]

Many people lack the ability, intelligence, resourcefulness, and curiosity needed to gather information and then get help. […] It’s all fine to say: “Just visit our website and we’ll…” But no. They assume that everybody has a damn cell phone or a computer or a laptop. Many people don’t, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, where the situation is even worse! (Participant 1)

I have a neighbour who said: “They told me they couldn’t lift my house.” Poor guy. He’s 90 years old, you know. I said to him: “They also told me they couldn’t do it, but I went to see the City, and it was the City that got things sorted.” […] See, if it happens again, he’ll be hit another time. (Participant 4)

These excerpts provide insight on the more limited capacity of vulnerable individuals to navigate a complicated bureaucracy in the wake of a disaster. In fact, all individuals interviewed so far have lamented this aspect of the situation.

Repeated Flooding: Distress and Personal Characteristics

The two research participants who had moved away from the neighbourhood after the 2019 flood cited distress and anxiety at the prospect of a new round of flooding as their main reason for leaving.

And so I’d say that 2019, ouf… It almost broke me, it did. Just talking about it puts me on edge. It was… It was too much. […] It’s the after-effects, the after-effects of all that, of still having alerts on our cell phones. When the water was rising, we kept an eye on things. We said: “OK, it’s over, we can delete all that.” […] And then you think to yourself: “Am I going to have to go through that again?” So, with everything else… You’re always a little short of breath. (Participant 2)

Personal characteristics, such as certain personality traits or an individual’s financial means, appear to explain the decision by the other two interviewees to remain in their homes after the 2019 flood.

Yeah, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t give up easily. I’m someone with a lot of character and I’m pretty resourceful. For sure, as far as that goes… Otherwise, what do you do? That’s it, you don’t have a choice. I mean, we all have a choice. I decided to stay. And I stand by my decision. (Participant 3)

What helped? It was that we had the money required. And we also had drive. But you know, ours was the first house to be lifted after the flood in Gatineau. […] You know, I saw it as a kind of fight. We had to make it work. We knew we were in the right and we were determined to win. (Participant 4)

A Recovery Period Marred by Neighbourhood Desolation

After the floods, home demolitions and the resulting vacant lots created a sense of desolation among those who remained in the stricken neighbourhood.

The desolation. […] We’ve lost about 90 houses. […] Before, I was talking about the relationship we had with the neighbours living behind us. We had to watch the excavator rip through those houses. The people leaving, who say: “Well, anyway, we’ll see you. We found a new place. Off we go.” The houses are coming down, you know. […] It used to be full of people. We’d take the kids over there to play. […] It’s empty. (Participant 4)

Given that disaster victims feel neglected by their municipality when it comes to revitalizing/reconstructing vacant lots, it would be interesting to further explore how their attachment to their community and environment influences their recovery.

We’re trying to spruce things up, breathe life into the place. But you know, nothing is happening. […] It’s like… give us a hand, a little help. We’re always in the process of trying to make the area as inviting as possible. This is our neighbourhood. We live here. We’re entitled to the same services as everyone else. […] They cut the grass three times over the summer. Do you think three times is enough? The geese, where are they coming from? The groundhogs? Look, it’s no joke. I’ve got traps. (Participant 3)

Place Attachment

Those interviewees who stayed in the neighbourhood described how they had developed an increasingly strong relationship with their homes in the wake of the floods. These data appear significant for understanding the experiences of disaster victims, since similar circumstances have rarely been documented in the literature.

I’ve spent money. Since the floods, I’ve spent even more money. It’s beautiful in the summer. I have a nice patio, all that. My home is my pride and joy, you know. Because it’s a reflection of who you are. (Participant 3)

Researcher: Would you say you have a stronger sense of belonging to your home?

Participant: Oh, yes, definitely. I’d say it’s always been strong, but it’s getting stronger. […] I said: “This is where I plan to raise my child, and this is where I plan to grow old.” […] Nothing is going to make me leave. (Participant 4)

With regard to social and community bonding, my preliminary results indicate that trajectories vary from one person to the next. One research participant described how she felt very attached to the community, having many family members and friends in her former neighbourhood.

But when we lived right across from each other, we’d play gin, we’d have fun, we’d throw backyard parties and then drink a couple of glasses of wine, chat… […] But now, there’s not really anybody home […]. It’s a completely different atmosphere. (Participant 1)

For the other interviewee who had left the neighborhood, social or community attachment did not seem to influence the recovery process, as she had few meaningful neighborhood relationships.

There’s been more of it since the floods. Because everybody has been pulling together. […] You know, because you’ve had to fight for your home. […] It was as if we’d developed more of a feel for the neighbourhood, but that was after the fact. (Participant 4)

The research participants generally expressed an attachment to the natural and built environment. The beauty of the river, as well as having bike paths and shops nearby were the neighbourhood attributes most often cited in their comments. But in the case of one individual who had left the area, the floods had altered her bond with nature:

Participant: Somewhere along the line, somebody knew that the neighbourhood […] was cursed from the start.
Researcher: You sort of regret buying a house there?
Participant: Yes.
Researcher: Is there anything you miss about Pointe-Gatineau?
Participant: To be honest? No. Sure, there’s a nice view of the river. […] But at the same time, when you look at a river, you really have no way of knowing if it’ll wash away half the neighbourhood sometime in the next 20 years. (Participant 1)

Final Thoughts and Conclusion

My preliminary findings are consistent with the observations in the literature regarding how socio-economically vulnerable populations find it more difficult to protect themselves and recover from disasters. Given the sense of abandonment felt by Pointe-Gatineau residents, it would be interesting to explore, in more depth, how municipal measures (or a lack thereof) can impact social and community bonding. It is too early to draw any firm conclusions regarding the role of place attachment in the recovery process of residents dealing with repeated flooding. Still, my initial findings suggest that attachment to home is the component with the greatest influence on deciding whether to stay in the neighbourhood or move away. However, in the short term, a household’s financial means and its members’ perception of their psychological health remain key factors in the decision.

Finally, from the perspective of developing a “resilient lifestyle” in the face of repeated flooding, I found one interviewee’s thoughts on the prospect of more floods especially interesting:

Some were born and bred here. You know, they grew up on these streets. For them, it was like… They’d seen it all before. […] OK, it’s another flood but some folks lived through the one in the 70s […] and there are some older residents who remember that. You know, it’s like… this is our neighbourhood. That’s just how it is. (Participant 4)

These thoughts echo those of another research participant who decided to remain in the neighbourhood after the floods. She shared various ideas for better withstanding the next round of flooding and talked about how she was making home improvements with this goal in mind. So although a large number of affected households left the neighbourhood after the floods of 2017 and 2019, others chose to stay put and invest in making their properties more resistant to flooding. It would be interesting for future studies to look at how some disaster victims are able to adapt to a way of life punctuated by seasonal hazards, including how this form of resilience could be leveraged at a community level.



[1]      Interview excerpts have been translated from the French.

To cite this article

Hamel, A. et St-Amour, N. (2024). Repeated flooding in Pointe-Gatineau: From living neighbourhood to wasteland. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

* This text is based on the preliminary results of Ariane Hamel’s dissertation, which was presented at the ACFAS in Montreal in May 2023 and at the AIFRIS in Paris in July 2023.

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