Swept Away
/ Author: Rachel Debling 515 Rate this article:

Swept Away

When Mother Nature unleashed torrential flooding on BC last year, Local 68 members and their companies banded together to help the community, the province, and each other

By Rachel Debling

THE TERM ATMOSPHERIC RIVER WAS relatively unknown until late last year when BC’s Coquihalla Highway was taken out by a series of furious floods that left the Lower Mainland without access to much of the area. Local 68 members working on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMEP) were on the front lines of the response, scrambling to get local communities the help that they needed and keep their project on track—all while battling the elements.

Three Local 68 members gave us their first-hand accounts of what it was like working under such extreme conditions and time pressures while keeping themselves and others safe.

Rundle Construction Inc. (Bonatti)
Local 68 (steward)

“I’ve been a steward for almost 10 years. I’ve had dry spells, and I’ve been a chief steward for a couple of years with AECOM on a maintenance gig. CLAC’s probably the third union I’ve been with.”

Rundle Construction Inc. (Bonatti)
Local 68 (steward)

“I have been working in construction for 20-plus years, and I have never seen anything like the floods.”

Skilled labourer
Macro Pipelines Inc.
Local 68 (steward)

“I’ve been working for Macro for years, and that’s not going to change. Best company I’ve ever worked for!”

When did you first learn of the threat of these floods on BC’s Lower Mainland and the projects you were working on?

When the flooding happened, I was here working on the Trans Mountain pipeline. We were hammered with the fires, and then right after it was these atmospheric rivers.

The floods first started impacting the Trans Mountain project the day all the highways and everything washed out around us. Our team was one of the first on the project to be impacted really heavily.

I had just moved to BC for work, and I went home on the long weekend prior to the floods to get my fiancée [now wife] and my son to bring them down so they were closer. We rented a nice house down here so I could see them more often.

I remember right when I was coming down, I told my fiancée, “Don’t worry, honey. If you want to go home and see your family, just drive home—it’s going to be great.”

And then we got down there, and guess what? Flooded. Highways were closed. I thought we weren’t going to be able to go anywhere until after Christmas. But thankfully, everyone I spoke to was able to get to where they wanted to for Christmas and to see their families again.

Had you previously been involved in a project that was affected by a natural disaster?

When I drove my truck out here during the BC fires, it was just crazy watching whole mountainsides on fire—anyone who lived there at that time knows what I’m talking about. The
sheer damage that nature can inflict—whether it’s fire or floods—is mind blowing.

With this situation, we were out working, trying to get everything fixed, and then another atmospheric river would hit. The next thing you know, you have this giant river coming down the  mountain that wasn’t there a week ago.

I was working during the fires in Fort McMurray, but nothing close to this; we just stayed in camp until they let us out.

For the floods, we volunteered if they needed help. Then I ended up going to work for CN Rail. There was a train derailment, and because the Trans Mountain work was shut down, our company was approached by CN Rail. A bunch of us went out there and did some work.

I was on site when it started. The destruction was catastrophic. The highways were washed out, the roads were gone, bridges were destroyed—just gone. Mother Nature is powerful!

I had never seen a disaster at this level. Within nearby communities, there was quite a bit of panic. In Chilliwack, people were fighting over groceries! All highways were completely cut off.

What was the spirit like as different companies and teams banded together?

Everyone really came together to help the community, the province, and each other. I was in charge of some Bonatti guys, but I worked closely with Kiewit [Kiewit Energy Construction Co. ULC, which is building the highway], and I know some of the Kiewit crew from working in the industry. When you’re staying in camps, you meet people.

Everybody on site formed a stronger bond. Once we got going on rebuilding the highways and everything, it was seven days a week, steady, until the Christmas break. Not only to get as many repairs done on the highway as we possibly could, but also the reclamation of our work areas.

I’ve never seen teams come together the way that the Trans Mountain pipeline crew, Kiewit, Macro, and Bonatti did. It was quite amazing to see everybody working together to not only ensure everyone’s safety, but to get the project back up and rolling again.

Did you ever feel you were in danger?

The safety protocols they had in place were great. In the aftermath of the floods, they became a little stricter in some areas where we were working, but they didn’t diminish by any means, that’s for sure. Being separated from one’s family for such long periods of time was mentally tough on some of the crew, though. I’m originally from Ontario, so I’m away from my family all of the time, so I was good. I think it affected some people more than others.

The companies all banded together, between Kiewit, Macro, and Bonatti on the Trans Mountain project. It really made a big difference. We worked together to make sure that everybody was safe.

From surveying the damage to having safety teams out there with the crews to ensure that nobody was getting themselves into hazardous situations, everything was being assessed before we went back to work to ensure that no one was putting themselves or the project at risk. Everything was done safely.

As part of the safety team, how we responded really showed that safety comes first on our projects. Everything had to be approved and checked before it could possibly be opened.

Bonatti is an Italian company that is kind of a steep-slope specialist, and this is a pretty technically challenging spread of the Trans Mountain project. We had the most stringent
environmental regulations—I mean, we had to shut down parts of the spread for snails!

Kiewit is also an exceptional company. That is, they do infrastructure and all kinds of stuff, but Kiewit builds highways very well. When all the highways were washed out, we had operators on board, they had operators on board—it was all hands on deck.

Our guys know how to be safe, and the Kiewit guys aren’t afraid to say no, we can’t do it that way because it’s not safe. It’s nice to know that others in the industry have that nobody-gets-hurt mentality too.

What were some of the most surprising moments on site during this time?

To see pictures of the devastation is one thing. But to lay your eyes on it in person and see what happened out here, that’s another thing. The rivers were overflowed, spilling out on the highways. Parts of the mountain were just gone. Rocks littered the highways. Pictures don’t do it justice.

During that time, I saw some amazing things. I went out to do some assessment work with some of the crews, and the mamount of damage and the sheer power of these floods was absolutely insane. Mother Nature is very, very unforgiving, and as much as you might think, well, we’ve got equipment and we’ve got this and we’ve got that, it’s absolutely nothing compared to the power of those floods.

Entire roads were wiped out. Highway sections, bridges—gone. It was absolutely mind-blowing. And then the work afterward also caught me off guard.

It was inspiring the work that was done, especially a big portion by Kiewit—how quickly and efficiently they were repairing highways to get access to areas that needed to be repaired.

Complete banks under railways were washed out to the point where you’ve got a 70-metre stretch of railway with a rail car sitting on it and no ground underneath. I’m talking a 125-foot drop!

When we were working, they were helicoptering in Subway sandwiches, because that was the fastest and easiest way to get them to us and keep us going. Guys worked 18-hour days, trying to get highways open so that ambulances could get through. It was nuts.

How did you and your workmates help local communities repair and rebuild?

We had teams working within the community, within the shelters, trying to ensure food was brought to people. We had teams working to make sure food was supplied to the camp to feed the guys who were still there and were stuck.

The locals were very, very grateful. No one was offended by us being there. It created a stronger community bond within the workers and the teams.

As much as the flood was a terrible event, it really showed that we’re here to work with the locals to help them, not to cause any hindrance within their community.

BC’s Lower Mainland was completely cut off from the rest of the country. The Trans Canada Highway was closed. The Coquihalla Highway was closed. Other roads were cut off. The huge amount of product that comes into the Port of Vancouver every day and gets put on rail and shipped out to the rest of Canada was cut off, with no way to get shipments across.

Luckily, Kiewit has a ton of equipment here, same with Bonatti. When the floods hit, we’ve got guys at camp. We’ve got guys here living in Hope, BC. We have the entire workforce here. Because we have hundreds of pieces of iron and heavy equipment—dozers, excavators, dump trucks, rock trucks— the rescue efforts went from three or four months to three or four weeks.

The one thing I’ll always remember from this project and be proud of is filling sandbags with the people in Hope, stacking them in front of their houses so they wouldn’t wash away. It was an experience for sure.

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