06/05/2011 10:16 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2011

Montreal Hotels Become High-End Shelters For Flood Victims

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- ST-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, Que. -- Quebec's once-in-a-century floods that have forced hundreds from their homes are transforming some regional hotels into two-and-a-half star displaced-person camps.

For over a month, citizens of the Richelieu River basin have watched as fishy, contaminated flood waters gurgled into their living rooms.

And in the near future they will begin a massive clean-up of their waterlogged homes — many of which are damaged beyond repair.

But until the flood waters finally retreat back into the Richelieu, hundreds of victims will continue to live in anxious limbo.
Many hotel guests are struggling with insomnia and some regularly break down into tears, said one evacuee.

"We're demoralized," said Eric Galipeau, whose family was driven out of their house in St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu.

"It was kind of funny at first, but once you've spent six weeks in a hotel, it becomes a bit of a problem."

Water levels have see-sawed since Easter, dragging residents in Montreal's south shore region through a prolonged natural disaster.

The foundation of Galipeau's home has cracked from the water, the furnace is flooded and the hot-water tank is twisted sideways.

His family makes a half-hour journey every day — 20 minutes by car, and 10 minutes in hip waders sloshing through water — to visit the house.

They go to feed their two cats and two budgies.

Galipeau is currently living in a cramped room at a Holiday Inn Express with his wife, Nancy Hebert and their 13-year-old son. They've brought their three small dogs to the hotel with them.

The family home was among the estimated 3,000 flooded since the waters began rising in the Richelieu and Lake Champlain basin more than 40 days ago.

The are currently 150 evacuated families whose hotel stays are being funded by the Canadian Red Cross. Some 540 families overall have used the service this spring at a handful of hotels.

As evacuees mill about hotel lobbies and restaurants, new friendships have formed among the displaced who are struggling through similar ordeals.

The dozens of evacuated families staying at Galipeau's St-Jean-sur-Richelieu hotel have spawned their own little community.
Galipeau figures most evacuees at the hotel have remained positive, while others are buckling under the psychological weight of losing their homes — perhaps for good.

"There are a lot of people who are really worried," said Galipeau, who is booked at the hotel through June 18 — at least. "We try to calm them down. We take it one day at a time."

Hebert said the evacuees exchange ideas and offer advice.

"People who are not in our situation don't understand our anxiety, don't understand the stress that we have because it's not their houses under water," said Hebert, as she puffed a cigarette outside the hotel with her new pal, Johanne Boucher.

Boucher, who moved to the hotel with her husband around two weeks ago, is grateful for the help from new friends and the Red Cross.

The days, however, are long when there's little to do but think about the long road ahead, even after she returns home.
"The hardest part is the unknown — we don't know what's going to happen when we go back," the Henryville resident said.
"It's like our lives have been taken away."

A few kilometres down the highway, dozens of evacuees gather for regular meals at the Gouverneur hotel, which has become their temporary home.

More friendships have been forged inside this hotel — as well as a regular karaoke night for flood victims, hosted by flood victims.

About 40 evacuees attended last week's inaugural party, where they belted out Engelbert Humperdinck and Patsy Cline tunes.
It was hosted by the karaoke machine's owners, Yvon and Gitane Beaulieu, whose waterfront house in St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu is a total loss.

"It helps people forget for a few hours," said Gitane Beaulieu, who bought the home 12 years ago when the couple retired.
"I like to see people smiling, singing and forgetting their problems. There will always be time for them to think about their problems later."

Some, like 90-year-old Madeleine Roy, manages to find a silver lining.

She says she has enjoyed making new friends, as well as the free buffet meals at her hotel.

Still, important things are missing, like her big orange cat named Kitty, who's being cared for by her daughter. She shows a visitor at least a half-dozen photos of her beloved pet.

"We have it good here, we're spoiled rotten, but I'm not in my own place," she said.