If the “atmospheric river” of rain from Nov. 15, 2021 had hit 80 kilometres further north last week, the Alberni Valley would have received the brunt of the storm system that has paralyzed southwestern British Columbia. It was sheer luck that the city didn’t get hit, says Chris Alemany, the person behind AlberniWeather.ca.
An atmospheric river is a narrow band of intense, warm, wet weather, and it missed Port Alberni while causing devastation 150 kilometres to the south on Vancouver Island, in Cowichan and on the Malahat highway. “We didn’t get very much rain at all,” said Alemany. “We only got 30 to 40 millimetres of rain at the airport on Monday (Nov. 15).”
Fifteen years earlier to the day, the Alberni Valley was hit with a near-hurricane that cut off the city east and west, caused a valley-wide power outage and flooded lower Third Avenue.
City officials learned some things after the big storm of 2006, Alemany said, and in the years since have taken action to mitigate flooding threats. “One thing that did come out of that, because there was such severe flooding…it spurred the city to make changes to Dry Creek,” he said.
A flood abatement project saw a new box culvert installed underneath the bridge beside Smitty’s Restaurant and improvements made to the channel along the entire lower length of Dry Creek. The project was completed in September of 2015.
Other action the city is undertaking is splitting its stormwater and sewer systems, but it is a slow process—happening one neighbourhood at a time, and predicted to take decades before all the city’s underground pipes are separated.
While Port Alberni’s new wastewater treatment plant is located in a low-lying area, a flooding incident like the one seen in Merritt is unlikely to happen here, says Rob Dickinson, the city’s director of engineering and public works. In Merritt, thousands of residents were evacuated because the city’s wastewater treatment system failed, filling the town with sewage-contaminated water.
“[Port Alberni] is right next to the ocean,” said Dickinson. “In a worst case scenario, if the system failed, the water will overflow into the harbour.”
This is already happening in Port Alberni, as the city has a combined stormwater and wastewater sewage system. Normally the system carries everything to the city’s wastewater treatment facility. But during unusually high levels of rain, the increased water overflows through the outfalls into the harbour—untreated sewage included.
“There are negatives and positives to that,” said Dickinson. On the positive side, the city is not flooded. On the negative side, all that sewage-contaminated water is flowing into the Alberni Inlet.
The city is currently working on separating the stormwater and wastewater systems, a project that will take place over the next 50 years.
The city is continually reviewing its infrastructure, and identifying different hazards. Infrastructure is built with “some redundancy” in case it fails, said Dickinson. For example, there are three locations in the Alberni Valley where people can cross over Rogers Creek. The creek will still be passable if one of the bridges is washed out.
Emergency program prepared
Heather Zenner, the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District protective services manager, says the Alberni Valley Emergency Program is “constantly” monitoring weather patterns, through Environment Canada, the River Forecast Centre and coordination calls with Emergency Management B.C.
“They’re giving us modelling information in advance so we can know when a storm is coming and if we can expect flooding,” said Zenner.
The ACRD also monitors local patterns. Water gauges on the Ash River, for example, tell the ACRD what will happen with the Somass River.
The province has faced some criticism for its communication throughout the recent storm and resulting floods, but the ACRD has a communication plan in place. If there was a major flooding situation, the ACRD would open its Emergency Operation Centre and notify Alberni Valley residents using a number of channels—radio, the Alberni Valley News, social media and the Voyent Alert app. The app has more than 2,500 subscribers so far and those who download it can have alerts sent straight through text, phone call or email.
“We implemented [Voyent Alert] so we can have quick communication with the community in the case of an emergency,” said Zenner. “That’s our first line of communication, but it’s not our only tool.”
The most important thing, said Zenner, would be supporting the people who need to be evacuated. The Emergency Operation Centre would request support from local organizations like the Alberni Valley Rescue Squad, RCMP and fire departments, and a support services team would be formed to provide support for people who have been evacuated, including things like hotel rooms and food.
The Alberni Valley Emergency Program also provides sandbags to people free of charge, using a provincial sandbag machine. The machine is usually stored at the City of Port Alberni’s public works yard on Sixth Avenue, but can be moved around to different communities on Vancouver Island depending on need.
“It’s a provincial resource, but they store it here because we’re a central location and we’ve used it in the past,” said Zenner.
In the case of a flood, Zenner said that the main concern would be the houses along the Somass River and on the Tseshaht First Nation reserve.
“Historically, those are the quickest places to flood when the river rises,” she said.
Tseshaht First Nation EOC recognized for flood response
The Tseshaht First Nation knows all about sandbags and communication during an emergency. In December 2015, several Tseshaht band members’ homes were threatened when the Somass River overflowed its banks, prompting the Tseshaht to declare an emergency. Twelve homes were affected, people were evacuated and hundreds of volunteers from the Alberni Valley came out to fill sandbags during that event.
The highway at McCoy Lake Road was flooded, cutting off a portion of the nation’s land at the bottom of Watty’s Hill. The only detour was through farmer Bill Thomson’s property. “That’s the first time I ever remembered that happening,” said Hugh Braker, who was Tseshaht Chief Councillor at the time.
Braker, former councillor Gina Pearson and others were part of the Tseshaht’s award-winning emergency operations centre that brought their nation through the flood without loss of life. Pearson is the health and emergency response coordinator and the only person in 2021 employed at the Tseshaht EOC. She has served with the EOC for 10 years (Braker retired from the EOC in July 2021).
The Tseshaht have a plan in place if another disaster were to hit their community, and that plan includes working closely with the ACRD’s EOC. Pearson said she works proactively to alert Tseshaht members when the Somass River begins to rise, inspecting homes for flood threats, monitoring weather alerts and watching for king tides—which when combined with torrential rains are a flood threat.
It is that communication that has gained the Tseshaht EOC provincial recognition, as well as confidence from their membership. “We’re highly respected with regards to our community and their safety. Just people knowing we’re here…we have been one of the busiest EOC teams around in any first nation,” she said.
Pearson will host an inspector from Emergency Management B.C. in a few weeks to inspect and identify any areas of concern for flooding or mudslides, especially near the Tseshaht administration building.
One thing that the Alberni Valley lacks is an official evacuation plan, but this is in the works. The city, ACRD and Hupacasath and Tseshaht First Nations have partnered to create a regional evacuation route plan that will identify assembly points and transportation methods for those impacted by an evacuation, including by foot, boat, bus and vehicle.
Zenner said the public engagement process for this route is just finishing up, and a draft of the plan will be prepared in early January. It will be presented to the ACRD board in February 2022.