By Lilia Yumagulova
In 2018, intense rain combined with snowmelt in the mountains caused the Kettle and Granby Rivers to overflow their banks, leading to the worst flooding the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) in British Columbia has seen in 70 years — and 60 cm higher than ever recorded. Across the region, homes, trailers, and farms were submerged in dark flood waters, forcing thousands of people from their homes and requiring 30 rescue evacuations in the immediate aftermath.
The recovery process in the region has made national news, as the City of Grand Forks has voted to buy out an entire neighbourhood affected by the floods, contingent on the funding from the province and the federal government. The bought-out houses will be salvaged and the area will be returned to the floodplain.
To write this feature, HazNet connected with staff at the RDKB who have been leading the response and recovery process:
Chris Marsh, EOC Director; Deputy Recovery Manager – Boundary Flood Recovery Team
In 2017, Chris started as the Manager of Emergency Programs, RDKB. Six month later, he oversaw the May 2018 flood response as the EOC director. His previous experience was at the provincial government as a Ministry of Environment Air Quality Technician and an Emergency Management BC Temporary Emergency Assignment Management System (TEAMS) member. He is also a paid-on-call firefighter with Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue (KBRFR). Chris is a graduate of the emergency management certificate program with the Justice Institute of British Columbia.
Dan Derby, ECFO, Regional Fire Chief, Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue
Dan started in the fire service at 17 as a volunteer firefighter, ultimately becoming a volunteer Fire Chief in Chemainus on Vancouver Island. In 2004, Dan transitioned into a public safety career. While deployed to events across the province, Dan saw the importance of bridging fire services and emergency management. In 2010, Dan became KBRFR Deputy Chief and Emergency Program Coordinator. Dan was promoted to Regional Fire Chief when Chief Martin retired. Dan is a lifetime learner and a graduate of numerous professional certification programs.
Roly Russell, PhD, Chair of the Kootenay Boundary Regional Board
Roly is the Chair of the Kootenay Boundary Regional Board and policy lead in the Emergency Operations Centre. After studies at University of British Columbia, University of Melbourne, Oregon State University as a Fulbright Scholar, and the Columbia University Earth Institute, Roly returned to the Boundary to raise a family, farm, and develop an independent research institute with a focus on sustainability, ethics, happiness and well-being, archaeological ecology, and complex adaptive systems.
As I walked into Chief Derby’s office, my eyes were drawn to an elaborate diagram on the whiteboard that depicts the scope of ongoing work and future trajectory for development of emergency management in the RDKB. The diagram captures an evolving and ever-expanding field that includes hazard-specific planning, asset management, elected officials training, livestock management, search and rescue, FireSmart activities, and public engagement and education. On the top right corner, a small heart and a note says “I love you Dad.”
The whiteboard shows key goals and work plans but also “how hard it is to catch up, get your breath, take care of your people” and also make progress on new deliverables. In the words of Chief Derby, “Expectations have gone from not being able to reach some stakeholders to ’Where the hell have you been?’ due to changing trends in emergency management and event activations.”
As we settle in, Chris and Dan take me back to the early days of the flood. Both of them are exceptional storytellers. Both of them seem to understand each other’s thoughts without speaking.
As Chris remembered: “At the beginning of May, we had indications we were at high risk. The snowpack in the Boundary was at 238% – a provincial record – and was saturated and ready to melt. We had had an active April, lots of issues in places we had never seen problems before. Then we had seven days of plus 30 degrees C, followed by two inches of rain. And it all came down at the same time.”
Dan added: “It was the perfect storm for the confluence of those two rivers—water-damming each other simultaneously. It’s hard to hydrologically predict that.”
The District activated the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) on Monday, May 7, 2018. As Chris recalls, “Between Monday to Tuesday we started to see some very concerning off-the-charts predictions for rivers in the Boundary from the River Forecast Centre. The predictions are based on volumes and cubic meters per second. It’s hard to know how that will look on the landscape. So we undertook some urgent mitigation works through Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC), building some dikes and making some repairs to the river banks.”
Dan picked it up from there: “The next morning, we got another phone call from the Flood Assessment Team at the Provincial Regional Emergency Operation Centre (PREOC) in Nelson, asking us ‘Can you phone us from a place where you can talk?’. They told us that the previous predictions were significantly lower than what we were going to get—two or three times, based on their assessment of the weather system, and that we had eight hours before the event hits, instead of the previously anticipated 16-18 hours.
We decided we needed to evacuate everybody under the 200-year floodplain. This was game day—that [day] you read about, trained for, exercised for, developed plans for your whole life, a day that you hope you never have to be a part of. And we were leading it.”
Chris added, “While the report was dispiriting, it’s a credit to the EOC team that they rallied quickly. Under the leadership of our amazing Planning Section Chief Donna Dean, they spent the evening making floodplain evacuation maps, preparing lists and organizing with Search and Rescue teams, firefighters and other volunteers. They consulted with the RCMP about how they were going to subdivide the evacuation orders, then started to deliver them early the next morning. About 3,000 people had to be notified about evacuation orders over a period of eight hours.”
As Chris noted, “We had to do about thirty rescues the first day that the rivers flooded. People in the region generally tend to be independent and don’t like to leave—they feel better staying to try to save their property. But Dan’s crew with their river rescue boat came over, Grand Forks Fire and Rescue had a boat, and our Search and Rescue partners deployed boats. Helicopters were used to extract families in the West Boundary. They rescued over 100 people that first day that likely wouldn’t have been able to leave under their own power.”
The size of the response zone was another challenge: “We had an active emergency event along 300 km of riverfront at the same time. When we look at the population distribution in the RDKB, there is a higher population density around Trail and Fruitvale, of about 22,000 people. Whereas the other 10,000 people in the regional district are spread across 6,000 square kilometres from Christina Lake to Beaverdell, and we had incident sites and people to evacuate all throughout that whole area,” explained Chris.
Dan recalled a particular incident, one that wasn’t exactly “textbook,” in North Fork: “People had to ‘evacuate in place’ because the road north of them was flooded and the road south of them was washed out. It wasn’t safe to send responders in, nor was it safe for residents to leave. We did our best to give them notice about what was going on, and we had a plan to use a grader in a case of medical emergency. We had conversations with fire, police and those who owned the resources to get us in there if we had to… It was a day I trained my whole career for,” said Dan, adding “I hope I never have to do that again but I’m very proud to have been part of that.“
Key response lessons learned
At the time of the interview, the EOC had been activated for 295 days. I asked Dan and Chris to distill their life-changing response experience into key lessons for other communities. They boiled it down to 1) the right people in the right leadership positions; 2) the power of pre-existing relationships; and 3) having a plan.
1) The people
In Dan’s words, “Chris in his job as the EOC Director was a rock. His understanding of what we needed to do to lead the organization through that event was what we needed.”
Chris added, “It was great that I had six months before the event, getting to learn from Dan as mentor and how to support him in his multiple roles. I don’t think either of us would have been as strong without each other.”
To Chris, “Having Mark Andison, our CAO, in the room to listen from a risk management and business continuity perspective was also critical. Our Section Chiefs (Planning, Operations, Logistics, Communications) were all exceptional. They built their teams in a way that made them very successful and it took a lot of pressure off of us. If we asked David Reid, the Manager of Public Works in Grand Forks, “We need to put in temporary flood protection works. Do you have that under control? and he said ‘Yes’, and that was the last time we talked about it.
“I’d also like to mention those who were managing calls from the public, who took thousands of calls from residents who were losing everything, and took calls for days on end and did an amazing job of providing information and reassuring everyone who phoned in.”
Dan expanded on this: “Our EOC policy lead, Regional District Board Chair Roly Russell, understood his role so well, we included him more than we normally would an elected official. He let us do what we needed to do, then steered tougher conversations about policy direction, especially as we started to think about and construct our recovery team.”
2) The relationships
Good pre-existing relationships was another key to success, including those with local agencies: “We were able to have conversations and put plans in place quickly because of those relationships,” said Chris.
As Dan explained, “We have an Emergency Services Committee and we try to meet twice a year. Its’ representatives from police, fire, ambulance, the military, our utility partners, our health care providers, our local non-profits like the Red Cross. We try to bring everyone together and this investment really paid off. We also engaged numerous agencies in the stage of planning, training, and tabletop exercises.”
Chris added, “We had a precursor flood in 2017 so there was an EOC activation which was much more minor. A lot of those relationships were already pre-built. When we had to go to someone and say ‘We may need a grader,’ they respected us—primarily Dan, because he had been working on these relationships for years. They knew if a request was coming it, it was a real need.”
“While we were planning the response, we had agencies that would come in and they would check the org chart and where they were. They wanted to be in the loop and a part of the chain of command. In the end there were 65 agencies either embedded in the EOC or available very quickly by phone. The operation section of the org chart alone was eight feet long.”
Relationships with people from different layers of the provincial government was also essential. “We had Regional Managers at EMBC up in helicopters so they could see what was going on. Their first-hand knowledge of what was going on and what we were going through made it easier when we made big requests of them.”
“Chris Johnson, our Regional Manager, we brought him in, and he was amazingly supportive. He also worked with the City of Calgary during the floods there. Within 30 seconds of lifting off in the helicopter, he said ‘You guys are going to be dealing with this for years’.”
Dan added, “Dennis Rexin at BC Wildfire also came down. He slept in his truck for a few days, helping me build out the organizational structure. We put all the teams we had in the field, from Beaverdell out to Christina Lake, into the org chart. That way we could disseminate information about what we wanted them to do, and also get them to bring information back to have real-time situational awareness in the EOC. It was a bit of a struggle, because we were trying to make something that works for wildfire work for a different hazard.”
“That is one of the things our flood response plan is looking at for 2019—how do we appropriately manage human resources? Technology is obviously a solution that we want because we had something paper-based, and that became a bottleneck.”
Dan recalled an example of how relationships also lubricated recovery efforts. “The City of Grand Forks owns their own electrical grid and substation and Fortis also has a substation. At one point, one of the substations was overwhelmed by flood water and was severely damaged. We had an estimate it was going to take three months to get the electrical grid back up and running. By working together, they had it back on in eight hours. Getting that power back on as quickly as it was, was key to managing the severity of the damage by getting pump stations and sanitary systems back running.”
3) The plan
In 2012 the District rewrote their emergency plan with two key changes: 1) Realign the plan so it wasn’t compartmentalized into sections but flowed as an unfolding event, and 2) Ensure the plan is rural-based rather than based on urban plans, taking into consideration the social context of rural BC, where residents tend to highly value their privacy and independence.
Dan explained, “Our plan is built on a foundation of partnership with our municipalities, so it is truly regional. We depend on staff from our eight local government partners. They all have a mix of ability to contribute. Some of them have three staff. So that was the foundation of the rewrite going from that more corporate metro-based plan to a rural based plan.”
Yet as Dan reflected, “We also had a conversation around whether to update our hazard, risk and vulnerability analysis, but after reviewing with a consultant, we decided the risks hadn’t changed. There hadn’t been substantial growth and changes in industry as in the Okanagan or the Lower Mainland. Though I would look at that a little differently today, because even if the types of risks haven’t changed, the severity needs to be reassessed.”
The District’s emergency communications plan is also a work in progress. “An emergency communications plan is not just communications to the public, it’s how we communicate to our elected officials—how we share the message that we want them to share. It’s communicating with other agencies. We were better in 2018 than we were in the 2015 wildfires, though we still have lots of work to do.”
In the end Chris added, “We struggled a bit with staffing logistics, but the rest of it was a fairly good news story. Often there can be interpersonal issues or leadership issues, but our team was solid, we’re lucky to work with those folks.”
From response to recovery: “The maiden voyage”
“You hear it said that recovery should start on Day One of response,” Chris reflected, “but when dealing with the emergency, it’s hard to dedicate the resources. It was something we struggled with when letting people go back into their homes we knew would be damaged. We started having discussions about how we could support recovery. Looking back, it’s hilarious because we thought ‘Wow, we are going to need a Recovery Manager,’ and now we have full-time recovery staff of 14 people.”
Dan said, “An emergency plan usually has one or two pages dedicated to recovery and one of them is a title page, right? I think most local governments see it like ‘one day we will look at that’. Even given what we know today, though, I don’t know that a scripted recovery plan is the right thing. I think a recovery concept is what’s needed: a conversation around lead recovery versus functional recovery.”
Early on in the recovery, they were faced with a critical decision: Do they hire consultants who had prepared recovery plans for other locations or go with a community-led recovery process?
Chris said, “We made a conscious decision we wanted to build on the strengths of the community. We knew it would be hard because we would be asking the community to come again to the plate and volunteer time and offer resources and that sort of thing. It meant it took a little while for things to speed up, because we had to build the airplane while it was in the air. But I think in smaller communities a community-led recovery is the answer. I don’t know whether a community led recovery would work in a metro environment.
The next step was to build their team. “The people you need on your recovery team are very different from the people you need in the EOC,” said Chris. In response you need people to do things or get things—decision makers. In recovery you need people with mental and social support skills, who can support people in organizations like the Red Cross and family service organizations. You also need people who are skilled in economic development.” We had a lot of amazing organizations step up and say ‘We’ll assist with this’ but having our roles pre-defined before you ask agencies to step into recovery is important.
“We didn’t have those connections before the event, but being a small community, we had people who knew who we should talk to. We were lucky the people we did talk to were took a risk in being part of the recovery, because recovery doesn’t always work well from the perspective of the public.”
Dan agreed, noting that provincial support from Emergency Management BC was critical for this route. “It took us months to have a comprehensive structure in place that captured the completeness of what we are doing. We had to build a management committee and a leadership team that involves our policy group, develop Terms of Reference, strategic objectives, and an org chart. All of those things are now tools that we can share with our peers to give them a running start.”
Dan added, “We pulled together a Fire Chief in Nelson who had been a Deputy Chief in Calgary as well as Chris Johnson. They had worked together on the floods there. One of our first real meetings around recovery, we invited them over and they helped steer the maiden voyage to get us going.”
“We have monthly management committee meetings that I chair in my role. If the Management Committee can’t provide the direction needed for the Recovery Managers, we escalate it to the CAOs. If the CAOs can’t make that decision within their authority, it’s escalated to our Policy Group. Then we have a recovery team of 14 people doing the work on the ground–that is a story in itself.”
The effect of the event on staff across the local governments in the region is still present: “The Village of Midway and the City of Greenwood, are very involved in ongoing response and mitigation work, as is the Regional District and the City of Grand Forks. Figuring all that out has taken a ton of time and some pretty exhausting conversations.”
Dan said, “Nine months later, we have one recovery staff person assigned to dealing with nine files. That’s nine homes, and everyone’s home is their castle and we are trying to figure out how do we deal with that. We’re dealing with tough decisions right now: property acquisition and demolition of structures (a polite way of saying people’s homes). But we knew which structures would need to be demolished the morning after the flood—or maybe the day before.”
“The Recovery Team is trying to come up with solutions that fit the community, not one property. That is very challenging, because Joe thinks that you need to save Joe’s house where the engineers are saying ‘No we actually need to sacrifice those 60 houses for the betterment of all’. That’s a very challenging discussion, even in a community-lead recovery process in a small community. You put that into a Metro environment and I’m not sure how that works.”
“There is no right or wrong answer, but we are running out of time to decide, because the tide is coming in on the 2019 freshet. We need to figure it out sooner rather than later.”
Regarding the City of Grand Forks’ vote to buy up properties, Chris said, “It was a business decision by the Mayor and Council. The leadership and some of the senior staff in the City of Grand Forks deserve credit.”
“It looked like it happened quickly, but the Boundary Area had been working on a Kettle River watershed plan for years. Last fall it was voted on and established, so now it’s going to be a foundational service of the Regional District. The Recovery Manager was previously hired to be in that Boundary Kettle River Watershed position, so he is very knowledgeable. He and the Head of Planning for the City and Public Works knew what needed to happen, based on funding. So they made a decision and now we’re waiting on the province and the federal government to support that.”
Chris added: “One of the first things we knew that we needed to do after the event was get a sense of the hydrological risk, especially in the Grand Forks area. What were we facing? Was this an isolated event? What’s the likelihood this could happen again?”
“When we started talking to hydrologists and engineers, we knew we had had a flood that exceeded the 1948 record flood by 60 centimeters. When we started talking to people, we heard about homes that had been wet three times in ten years and had received Disaster Financial Assistance three or four times. It starts to seem like an unacceptable number of times that people have to recover from these events.”
“Hydrologists and the River Forecast Centre are seeing progressively worse floods every time they happen. People are saying ‘based on the way that the climate is changing, and the snowpack melts, and the way weather systems come into the Interior and Boundary region, it’s safe to assume that this will not be the last catastrophic event we see in these areas’. We can’t say this will not happen for another 50 years. The hydrologist said: ‘take everything you think you knew before the year 2000 and throw it away. That dataset isn’t applicable anymore.’”
“The challenging part for local governments is to take a climate change lens, and make decisions based on how things are changing—not based on what has happened in the past. Everything is very random now, and it’s changing very quickly.”
“I understand these decisions are incredibly hard on people facing losing their houses, but the idea of having another flood or a worse flood two or three years from now is also unacceptable. These decisions aren’t made lightly, they came from a place ‘we do not feel that it is acceptable for people to face this over and over again’.”
Moving beyond recovery
Roly Russell, the Chair of the Regional board, said looking into the future the region faces both opportunities and significant challenges, noting anxiety from the public: “They worry about what’s coming—could it happen again. They worry about why recovery is taking so long. While we tell people to be prepared to look after yourself for 72 hours after an emergency, the reality is when you go through something like this, you can be on your own for much longer. Especially if insurance and Disaster Financial Assistance don’t help, you have to find ways to make it work on your own.
Dan added, “We have affected people in the community who have attached themselves to support being provided through the Recovery Team. We started talking in the fall about how do we transition people out of recovery. It’s a huge challenge for the local government and community to transition people back to life as normal as it can be and to normal services.”
Managing expectations continues to be a challenge, said Chris. “We need people to stop looking at that recovery team for answers, and start going back and looking to the places they would have looked previously. At the community meetings last night, people were asking the recovery team questions about things like logging practices, you name it. Figuring out how to transition out in a gentle way is going to be a challenge for people.”
Dan added, “I also think there is a huge challenge ahead for our elected officials to lead a conversation on which services local government can provide and which the provincial government needs to be provide—of ‘Yes, we are in this conversation and no, we are not in that conversation.’ I think where that goes to is some people have lost sight of what is their personal responsibility—for example, what is my own personal responsibility to look after my wife and my daughter before, during and after an event.”
Chair Russell stressed the importance of starting conversations about flooding before a crisis is upon you. “We have FireSmart practices for engagement and preparedness for wildfire—what role individuals can play in preparing their homes against floods is another conversation to start early. I was happy last night to hear people understanding more about their responsibility to get drain covers and avoid groundwater infiltration—that it’s not the job of the local government or provincial government to flood protect their home.”
He also pointed to the responsibility of the real estate industry. “It’d be awesome if they would play a bigger role in disclosing risks and hazards. Even if they have certain expectations they meet, it’s not sufficient. A lot of people who recently purchased homes that have since flooded said they were told prior to purchase the house never flooded—even when it’s in a place we know it’s flooded before.”
When asked about self-care during this incredibly demanding time, Chris reflected “We’re small organizations constrained by human resources—there are never enough people to do the work that we want to do. We got support from other communities, but due to high snowpack right across BC last year, everybody was very careful to retain their resources — which made sense.”
A lot of people carrying heavy loads, over long days and long activations did not feel like they could step away. Once their EOC role was finished, those people went back to jobs they hadn’t been working in for four-to-five weeks expected to catch up on a backlog of work.”
“So our debrief for the Response Team this year included a check-in half-day session, where we sat down and talked about the experience. It speaks to the strength of our team that we all felt comfortable sharing, and there were linkages for people to get the support they need.
“We’ve decided to do the same thing with the Recovery Team—even though it’s not over. These folks are dealing with incredibly challenging situations and hearing very sad stories, so we want to make sure they are supported.”
All photos supplied by Chris Marsh. Interview transcription by Shaun Koopman. Edits by Suzanne Waldman and Nicole Spence.