With flood waters subsided, area responders, volunteers and scientists have a clearer picture of the severity of last week’s storm, and of their own astonishment the region didn’t fare much worse.
The storm began when a frontal system completely stalled over the north coast, then delivered its full payload of rain uninterrupted for two days. The Northwest Regional Airport recorded 119mm over 48 hours, the equivalent of 64 per cent of the average norm for the month of October.
Although winds in the Terrace area peaked at only 60 km/h, the storm delivered powerful blows to other regions in the northwest, signaling the beginning of the winter storm season, says Environment Canada meteorologist Matt MacDonald. “It was pretty significant in terms of wind and rain. But of course in Terrace the biggest factor of this storm was the rainfall.”
The rain triggered flood warnings all the way to Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii and north to Stewart. River-flow returns measured anywhere between 10-year and 100-year highs, flows so intense the data from several creeks and rivers exceeded the measuring capabilities of the River Forecast Centre. Analysts instead relied on historic data to extrapolate their numbers.
“Watching the data come in we were surprised at times we weren’t hearing of more significant impacts,” Dave Campbell, head of B.C. river forecasting, said. “In the time I’ve been here I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was definitely a big storm event, in the top three or four in 50 years.”
The water volumes were most evident when the Williams Creek Bridge, on Old Lakelse Lake Drive, washed out early morning on Oct. 25. Thornhill resident Yves Thibault narrowly escaped serious injury or death when his small sedan struck a sinkhole at the foot of the bridge that extended down to the strong current. Because he had passed over the bridge just 15 minutes prior, a washout was the furthest thought on his mind.
“There was someone on the other side with a small yellow light,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it, just that he was giving me the okay to cross—it’s a single lane bridge.”
The light was a warning from a Nechako Northcoast Construction employee, who later told Thibault he had been driving over the bridge just as the washout began. Thibault’s car approached just minutes later.
“I didn’t see nothing. It’s pitch black, it’s raining, my low beams are on. All of a sudden there’s a thud and I’m stopped.
“I was a bit shook up. I didn’t really know what was going on. Then I opened my door, holy shit, I could have fallen in the hole. Probably drown.”
Thibault said it would be 60 to 90 minutes before the bridge was properly blocked off. No one was injured.
The smaller creeks and rivers like this were impacted the most by the heavy rains. The Skeena itself was the only river to stay within its regular storm flows, but one of its tributaries, the Zymoetz, reached levels of 3,500 cubic metres per second, surpassing the previous record of 3,100 during the storm of 1978, in which bridges were washed out up and down Hwy16.
The Zymoetz narrows significantly within a 60-foot span as it passes beneath a highway overpass then a rail bridge. The pressure from this bottleneck forced the levels up fast enough for the regional district to issue an evacuation order for roughly 30 homes in New Remo.
“It’s not like a regular rolling flood in this area, but the water is just backing up and filling in all the sloughs,” Terrace deputy fire chief Dave Jephson said.
Thornhill fire chief Rick Boehm was called on site to assess the situation. Particularly on Whitman Road and Royal Road, the water was encroaching with such speed Boehm had the district issue a State of Emergency and Evacuation Order around 2 a.m. Both Terrace Search and Rescue and Terrace Water Rescue were called in with a zodiac to confirm the evacuation of six homes.
“The water was coming up so fast they (Terrace Fire Department) couldn’t get down all the streets,” Jephson said. “But the Thornhill chief and the RCMP had done a great job, somehow they had gotten the message out. Going door to door in hasty way—you know, it was an emergency, a mandatory evacuation.”
As the waters rose raw sewage backed up throughout the evacuation area. Navigating the sludge, the rescue teams were further hampered by lawn debris and fuel tanks bobbing on the surface.
“It’s routine for us, but I really shouldn’t downplay it,” Jephson said. “There is a lot of concern in these situations. We’re in sewage, we’re in fuel. Everything in people’s yards was floating—but you could smell the fuel in the air. When you have large propane tanks floating around, that’s a concern. If one of those ignites you’re in trouble.”
The rescue teams confirmed all houses had been cleared. No injuries to responders or the public were reported. In total, about 30 homes were affected in the New Remo area. Four members of the RCMP remained on site to protect property until the residents were allowed to return.
Throughout the region the rainfall measured between 60-200 mm, with the highest amounts recorded in Kitimat and Terrace. Flooding on the Nisga’a Highway closed the road in both directions 40 km north of Hwy16 junction while pooling hampered travel both east and west of Terrace and south on Hwy37 to Kitimat.
Naomi Gourlay, the district’s emergency support services coordinator, had began mobilizing volunteers early in the day, as the rain, snow and high winds were combining into what she called the “perfect recipe of what could come.”
As she activated the support centre families and individuals began arriving immediately. The provincial program for emergency support services provides food, clothing, shelter and money for incidentals if required for up to 72 hours. The Sandman Inn, Bear Country Inn and Costa-Lessa Motel all answered ESS’s request for the immediate shelter of flood victims, many of whom had pets in tow.
At 5 a.m. the last of the New Remo residents was evacuated. Half an hour later the ESS centre was shut down, but quickly reactivated later in the morning as the district declared a State of Emergency for Electoral Areas C and E. The centre took in an additional 15 people before the order was rescinded.
Despite clear direction from the evacuation teams, Gourlay says she was disappointed to learn some people spent the night in their cars. She hopes in future emergencies people will check in with ESS for assistance.
“We want people to register so we know people are safe,” she says. “We know their whereabouts and know what to tell their family if they call and want to locate you.”
Otherwise, she adds, “I couldn’t have been happier [with the operation]. The training we did throughout the year went into action. Everyone went right into their roles and responsibilities. It was very smooth.”
– with files from Margaret Speirs