New Brunswick has a long history of flooding, with reports dating back as far as 1696. Rainfall, snowmelt, and ice jams are the principal causes with the worst floods caused by a combination of the three. In the spring, as the snows melt and rainfall replaces snowfall, the water levels rise. The rising water levels exerts upward pressure on river ice, causing it to break up. The ice can do considerable damage to bridges in particular. The ice can get stuck and build up at various point. These ice dams prevent the free flow of water and water levels behind them rise, causing flooding. The Saint John River is especially known for flooding due to ice jamming, rainfall, and snow melt.
In March of 1936, mild weather resulted in an early breakup of the ice cover:
“Twenty-two ice jams were recorded in the basin, some extending 10 kilometres upstream. Damages included partial or complete destruction of 15 bridges; inundation of roads and railways; flooding and destruction of homes, businesses and barns; loss of lumber mill stock; and loss of livestock. Province-wide damage estimates totalled $1.9 million, or about $33.9 million in 1998 dollars.” (Flooding Events in Canada – Atlantic Provinces)
Photo from the New Brunswick government
Although flooding is not typically sudden enough to cause widespread death, it can certainly be considered a disaster because of the extensive damage it does to a community’s infrastructure. I look at definitions of disaster in a blog post; for many sociologists of disaster, a disaster includes any event that significantly and negatively impacts the regular functioning of society. Mass death obviously negatively impacts a community, but so does the loss of infrastructure, including buildings, transportation routes, and telecommunications. Although no lives were lost in the Saint John River flood of 1936, people lost their homes, possessions, and sometimes their businesses. For some, all access to and communication with the outside world was cut off for a time. This meant no incoming food supplies, medical assistance, or suitable shelter. With telephone wires down, there was also no way for isolated communities to learn whether or not to expect the flooding to get worse or better, or how long they might be isolated before help could arrive. Thus flooding can significantly disrupt regular social functioning.
New Brunswick provincial government site: Flood details, Mar 16-25, 1936
Government of Canada: Flooding Events in Canada – Atlantic Provinces
United States Department of the Interior: The Floods of March 1936 – Part 1 New England Rivers