Montreal looked a little like Venice on Thursday morning.
While the sinking Italian city of canals and plazas was inundated with the second highest tide in its history this week, Montrealers woke up to two feet of water in the Square-Victoria–OACI métro.
Video footage showed Montreal firefighters and transit officials in hip-waders sloshing through a subterranean pedestrian passage while a cascade of water flowed down the station’s tiled stairs like a waterfall. By no means as dire as the state of emergency in Venice, the deluge nevertheless paralyzed the busiest portion of the Orange Line for the morning rush and into the afternoon.
The cause of the flooding was not immediately known. Mayor Valérie Plante said the affected pipe wasn’t even that old by Montreal standards. But this is a city where anything could blow at any time. And the soaking of the Square Victoria métro is just the latest proof that it frequently does.
Montreal has experienced some spectacular infrastructure failures over the years. There have been falling paralumes, cracked tunnels and backhoe-swallowing sinkholes. But many incidents have involved water.
Who can forget the day in January 2013, when a raging river rushed into downtown Montreal from above? The torrent was so strong down McTavish St. that a McGill University student caught halfway across had no choice but to sit down and be swept away, as if riding some giant waterslide.
Thursday’s alluvion is reminiscent of 2007. Water pouring into the basement of the Hudson’s Bay Company flagship led to the discovery of a crack in the city’s underground network. The Green Line was halted, The Bay and Promenades de la Cathédrale were evacuated, and de Maisonneuve Blvd. was closed for months while the structural soundness of the tunnels beneath was tested.
In 2005, a ruptured water main sent a geyser spewing six storeys into the air over Old Montreal. It gave Old Faithful a run for its money (and immediately justified TVA’s purchase of a news helicopter). But type the words “geyser” and “Montreal” into Google, and you get multiple hits from multiple years.
In 2011, a sewer erupted with enough force to move a car parked on Wolfe St. near René Lévesque Blvd. In 2015, spouting water on St-Laurent Blvd. and Laurier Ave. blew off a manhole cover and condemned Thai Grill restaurant. In 2016, water poured out of the ground on Pie IX Blvd. submerging basements. (The thoroughfare had also been the site of a similar tsunami in 2002).
As we all know, Montreal’s water infrastructure is in desperate shape after decades of neglect. In some cases the leaky pipes date back a century. Coupled with a seesawing freeze-thaw cycle that is getting more extreme due to climate change, the race is on to replace it, but the backlog is so great, the city can hardly keep pace.
Gushers aren’t always the fault of decrepit infrastructure. Human error has played a role in some of our more memorable messes.
When the Atwater Tunnel was inundated almost a year ago, it was because a crew punctured a water main. Was it karma that one of the cars floating in the accidental lake belonged to the errant worker?
After the L’Acadie Circle was overhauled in 2004 at a cost of $110 million, the interchange flooded five summers in a row because the storm sewers weren’t built big enough to handle a heavy downpour. It had to be reconstructed in 2015 at a cost of $2 million.
When pieces of the concrete ceiling came crashing down in the Ville-Marie Expressway tunnel in 2011, it was later blamed on engineers using “inappropriate” plans. Miraculously, the collapse occurred on a Sunday morning and no one was killed.
But things could just as easily have turned tragic. One person died and two were injured when the Souvenir overpass in Laval gave way in 2000. There were five deaths and six injuries when the de la Concorde overpass fell in 2006.
These senseless fatalities may have helped stir the powers that be from their miserly inertia and contributed to the construction boom that has made the orange cone Montreal’s unofficial symbol.
Transport officials must be heaving a huge sigh of relief that the new Samuel de Champlain Bridge opened before the old span faltered. When a routine inspection revealed a crack in the deck in 2013, a massive truss had to be installed as an emergency measure. The extraordinary operation to attach the superbeam even inspired T-shirts with the slogan “Keep Calm and Super Poutre.”
And that, in essence, is still Montrealers’ lot in life: to soldier on, come hell or high water.