51 years ago, 31 people died and 42 houses were swallowed up by a huge landslide in Saint-Jean-Vianney, a tragedy that has allowed the neighboring town of Saguenay to learn lessons that it recently applied when evacuating hundreds of residents in La Baie.
Posted at 5:00 am
Gilles Gaudreault and Yolande Fortin, sitting in the living room of their house in Arvida, built in Saint-Jean-Vianney, which after the tragedy moved like hundreds of others in the neighborhood, remembered the night of May 4th, 1971 like it was yesterday.
Many warning signs pointed to the impending catastrophe, the couple recalls. Signs that, in their opinion, if read correctly, might have prevented the worst.
“A week earlier a country had collapsed, the children said they felt the ground as they played in the street, others had broken windows, their doors could not be opened,” lists Gilles Gaudreault. If we had been a church with a civil engineer […] If they had taken care of it, we would have been evacuated beforehand, we would not have had any problems. »
After the town was closed after the landslide by order of Robert Bourassa’s government, today almost nothing remains of Saint-Jean-Vianney, except for the steps of the porch of the church.
The same steps that Yolande Fortin descended in tears on May 9, 1971, on the occasion of the last Mass celebrated in the village. “I said, ‘If he wants us to go back, I’ll ask for a divorce,'” she recalls with a laugh.
But at the time, his sense of need reflected the state of mind of the victims.
Nobody wanted to stay there. Those who stayed there for a while lived in fear.
Gilles Gaudreault, victim of Saint-Jean-Vianney
When Saguenay Mayor Julie Dufour declared a state of emergency in her city last Monday, she recalled the lessons of the Saint-Jean-Vianney tragedy, which Quebec recognized last year as a “national historic event”.
“These 31 deaths today allow us to save 200 people […] So when we say that the expertise of cities and governments is growing, I think [La Baie] it is a good example,” said the mayor.
In Saint-Jean-Vianney, ten days before the May 4, 1971 tragedy, the first signs of a possible landslide were listed by the authorities, recalls Ali Saidi, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Forecasting and Prevention of Risks Related to hydrogeotechnical hazards.
This is the trigger that persuaded the Quebec Ministry of Transportation (MTQ) to hire a specialized landslide team whose skills have been perfected over the years, he adds.
In La Baie, after an initial visit by the MTQ on April 26, the first homes were evacuated almost immediately. According to engineer Denis Demers, this decision saved lives.
Since 2008, the city of Saguenay, in collaboration with the MTQ, has identified which areas on its territory are most at risk. These are now systematically inspected in spring and early summer, a time that favored landslides and has since prevented about ten.
“These are cases that we just don’t hear about,” Denis Demers summed up on Wednesday after meeting with the victims of La Baie to explain to them how the work will be carried out that will allow them to get into their homes to return.
Prepared for nuclear war
Less than a week after the evacuation of 53 homes, homes for all the victims had been found thanks to the help of the city’s housing department.
Urgently dispatched from Arvida in 1971 to take care of the victims of Saint-Jean-Vianney, former Ministry of Health and Welfare (MSSS) official Roger Flaschner recalls how disadvantaged the city authorities were then compared to today .
“The municipal emergency plans were designed for nuclear disasters. We gave them a Geiger counter to measure the radioactivity and that was pretty much it, even if sometimes they couldn’t remember where it was,” exclaims the man who has now moved to Quebec.
In the event of nuclear war, the federal government provided cooking kits to emergency hospitals. There was money, but it was not used.
Roger Flaschner, former MSSS officer
After the Saint-Jean-Vianney tragedy, he toured Quebec communities to help them update their contingency plans. What followed was a small revolution in the field.
The idea: to organize social services after the disasters “that are hanging over our heads,” says Roger Flaschner, pointing out the importance of city-specific vulnerability studies.
“In the Gaspé, in most of the villages, the danger was blizzards. There are women who went elsewhere a month earlier because they feared that the ambulance might not come the day they gave birth. You had to be prepared for such situations,” he explains.
In 2013, the MSSS created the Roger Flaschner Awards to highlight “the exceptional contribution of civil security actors” to the healthcare network.