‘It’s like that friend who betrayed you’: Emotional toll of flooding is felt long after waters recede

If you didn’t live through one of the catastrophic floods that hit Canada this spring, you might think they’re over.

Once the water recedes, it easy to assume that people’s lives return to normal. After all, when the rivers and lakes go back down, the story disappears from the news and the public’s attention turns elsewhere.

But what happens to the people still living in the flood zone?

Many Canadians experienced some of the worst flooding in recorded history this spring — one of the hardest-hit areas in New Brunswick, where more than 5,500 homes flooded or were threatened, was still recovering from a 2018 inundation. The National sent reporter Nick Purdon and producer Leonardo Palleja to  to find out what happens after the flood.

Dawn Burke

“Every time the waves hit, the house shook.”

Dawn Burke remembers how the water of Grand Lake rose so high that it reached the ceiling of the main floor inside her house.

“It wasn’t worth risking our lives to be in there, so that’s when we left,”  she says.

Dawn Burke’s video of waves pounding through a doorway and into her house on New Brunswick’s Grand Lake during spring flooding in 2018. 0:22

That spring day in 2018, her house battered and completely surrounded by water, Burke, 52, and her husband didn’t believe there was anything they could do to save it.

So instead they went to help a neighbour.

When they finally returned to the house, Burke says she opened the front door and water poured out.

“That was very dramatic,” she says. “But I didn’t cry for it. I didn’t cry once for it,” even though it was the home where she had raised her six children.

“I think for me it was more important to show my kids that material possessions come and go, and that’s not what is going to define what we are,” Burke says. “There was a lesson there for us all to learn.”

Dawn Burke stands where her house once was on the shores of Grand Lake in New Brunswick. ‘Even today when you look at how far away the lake is, it’s hard to believe that the flood actually happened,’ she says. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Burke says it would have cost more to fix her house than it was worth.

In the end, the province paid Burke a percentage of its value and the family walked away.

Now they’ve started again.

“My husband is 64 — we never thought at our age we’d be trying to come up with a downpayment,” she says.

“But what’s the choice?” she adds.

This spring the family managed to buy a house — far outside the flood zone.

Burke admits she’ll miss the lake she loves, but she won’t risk being flooded again.

“How high do you build?” Burke asks. “How bad are the floods going to get? So that was a struggle for us.”

Sarah Kirstead

Childhood for Sarah Kirstead was all about the cottage her grandfather built almost 50 years ago.

“We played hide and seek, we picked berries, and had campfires all the time,” she says. “The cottage was home. I think what it was to me as a child was freedom.”

Sarah Kirstead grew up on the shores of Grand Lake. She learned to walk at her grandparents’ cottage and had some of the most memorable moments of her childhood there. (Sarah Kirstead)

Then the flood of 2018 destroyed it.

Kirstead, 22, who is now a professional photographer, has used her camera to make sense of her loss.

“I remember standing in what was their kitchen — the whole front of the cottage was open to the water, the walls were completely gone,” she says.

“I thought, ‘I lost an era of my life.'”

Kirstead was devastated when her grandparents’ cottage was destroyed by the 2018 floods. ‘I guess it’s such a stark reality that nothing is permanent. I think that’s what hit me about it,’ she says. (Sarah Kirstead)

Kirstead is worried about her grandparents, too, because she knows how much they loved the cottage.

“There was a little bedroom — that was grammy’s room,” Kirstead remembers. “She used to have a window right onto the lake and she would always listen for the waves in there.”

Kirstead says her grandmother was usually at the window of the cottage looking out at the lake when Sarah came to visit.

“In a way it’s gone, but it’s still here too,” Kirstead says.

“That’s one thing my grandmother said when we were processing the aftermath. She was like, ‘You know, the view is still there. At least the view is still there.'”

Kirstead recalls some of her childhood memories as she sits near the site where her grandparents’ cottage used to be. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Kirstead’s family decided not to rebuild the cottage. With catastrophic floods two years in a row, they say the water levels are too unpredictable.

Instead, Kirstead’s grandparents have parked a trailer near the spot — but higher up and closer to the road.

Kirstead says the flooding has taught her a lot about which things in life really last.

“You want to feel secure and permanent, but I don’t necessarily need the cottage to physically be there to understand what it meant to me growing up.

“That’s still there,” she says.

Lisa Sanderson

“I haven’t actually been down to the beach since the flood,” Lisa Sanderson admits as she stares out at the St. John River.

On this day the river is perfectly calm.

“I just…” she tries to explain, but pauses.

“It’s a little too real to see the water.”

Sanderson stands on the shore of the St. John River, which has threatened to flood her home twice in two years. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Sanderson has been through a lot over the past couple of years.

She and her partner checked the historical flood data before they bought the property in 2012 — water had never come close to the house.

They thought they were safe.  

Then in 2018 it took 2,500 sandbags, a dozen people and days of pumping water out of her house to save it.

A flood like that wasn’t supposed to happen more than once in her lifetime — but then the water rose again this spring.

One of the things she has learned about floods, Sanderson says, is that they don’t get easier the more they happen.

They get harder.

“This year the helplessness was worse. The anxiety was worse, because you know what to expect,” she says. “You know how hard it is to see the water coming. It’s a feeling of doom and dread. It feels like it is attacking your life.”

It took a wall of thousands of sandbags and a team of people working around the clock to save Sanderson’s home from the floodwaters. (Lisa Sanderson)

Sanderson says she has decided to seek counselling to help her with the stress of the floods.

“It’s really hard. You picture your life here,” she says. “It looks like just a little piece of land to someone, but to us it perks us up when we come home — every single day. But at the same time, we can’t go through what we went through the last couple of years.”

Sanderson, a high school music teacher in St. John, isn’t sure what to do. She and her partner have discussed building a flood wall, and they’ve looked into moving, too — but how do you sell a house that floods?

“Who is going to want to build here? Who is going to want to live here?

“It was never a concern before,” Sanderson adds. “Things are changing. The world is changing.”

When Lisa Sanderson bought her home on New Brunswick’s Saint John River in 2012, historical data showed that floodwaters had never been recorded near the building. But the house has now been threatened by flooding twice in the past two years, and she’s struggling with what to do next. 0:39

Standing on the beach as the sun begins to set, Sanderson admits her perspective on the St. John River has changed too.

“When we first came down here this was one of the selling points — standing here and looking at this river,” she says.

And now?

“It’s like that friend who betrayed you who you still hang out with — you’re just careful.”


Watch the story from The National about how the aftermath of major flooding continues to affect the lives of people in New Brunswick:

After major floods in the province this past spring, many New Brunswick homeowners now face a difficult choice: Try to sell their properties, accept a government buyout or rebuild. CBC’s Nick Purdon went to New Brunswick to find out how the floods have changed lives. 8:35

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