Rain poured like a firehose over southern Graham Island last week, triggering landslides.
A whopping 144 mm of rain fell on Queen Charlotte and Skidegate last Monday and Tuesday — enough to cause a highway-smothering slide, flood roads to the knee, and force a shut-down at the Skidegate water treatment plant.
Out at Rennell Pass, 276 mm fell over the same period, causing one major slide that is still blocking the road to Rennell Sound, and four smaller ones beyond. Another slide further north blocked access to the Marie Lake fish hatchery.
“It was kind of an intense day,” said Lori Wiedeman, chief administrative officer for the Village of Queen Charlotte, speaking about the first and heaviest day of rain on Monday, Oct. 23.
Just before 3 p.m., so much water was rushing down the hillsides above Queen Charlotte that it triggered a major slide east of the village, near Eagle Hill Road.
Trees, mud, and rocks slid down a steep slope on the highway’s north side, knocking out power to the village and covering both lanes just before school let out.
No one was injured and by 8:30 p.m., crews with O’Brien Road & Bridge had cleared the debris and re-opened a single lane on the highway. Hydro workers restored power a half-hour later.
During the closure, students from Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary and GidGalang Kuuyas Naay managed to walk around the slide and get rides home from teachers thanks to a safe route opened through Queen Charlotte Mayor Greg Martin’s front yard.
As it happens, the slide fell directly toward Martin’s oceanfront property, but it was shielded by a large outcrop of rock.
“We call it Mount Martin,” said the mayor, whose kids used to build forts up top.
“It would hold back anything, short of maybe a North Korean missile attack.”
Until they discovered the Mount Martin shortcut, the emergency response team in Queen Charlotte had planned to shuttle students around the slide using a Highlander Marine boat.
But a strong southwest wind kicked up, so instead the Highlander boat stayed by the Skidegate Landing ferry terminal in case anyone on the Skidegate side of the slide needed to get to the hospital in Queen Charlotte.
Geotechnicians with B.C.’s transportation ministry managed to okay the highway re-opening from Terrace on Monday, thanks to photos sent by a certified drone operator. They got a firsthand look Tuesday, and have since recommended stabilizing measures for highway crews and for the homeowner who lives just above the slide.
“Everyone worked really well together,” said Queen Charlotte Fire Chief Larry Duke, noting that phones were constantly ringing for responders in both Skidegate and Queen Charlotte on Monday and Tuesday, as they had to adapt their plans several times to changing circumstances.
Another thing that worked well was Haida Gwaii’s new emergency alerts system, ePACT, which village staff used to update the public via text, email, and voicemail alerts.
“I’ve been getting nothing but positive feedback,” Duke said, and the number of registered users has shot up since the slide.
Untreatable creek, flooded roads in Skidegate
In Skidegate, the biggest trouble was at the water treatment plant, which had to shut down because the source water rushing down Slarkedus Creek got so muddy.
“It brought down boulders as big as my car, and logs, all kinds of vegetation,” said operator John Wesley, noting that all the debris built up in front of the concrete intake dam.
“Rather than producing murky water, we shut the plant offline and just let it race by,” he said.
Speaking Friday after three days of very welcome sunshine, Wesley said although the water was still fairly murky, the plant was treating again and recharging the reserve tanks.
“It’s coming in brown as good, strong pekoe tea and leaving clear as distilled,” he said.
At one point, Wesley said the volume of water in the village tanks fell to just five feet from the normal range of 19 to 22. Skidegate residents were asked to hold off on laundry and other heavy water use for a few days and they did, he said, saving about 40,000 litres a day.
Up at the intake dam, contractors spent two days working an excavator and dump trucks to clear all the gravel and debris away.
Down in the village itself, chief councillor Billy Yovanovich said a section of 4th Avenue had to be closed and partly rebuilt after a culvert failed and floodwater undermined the road — at one point, half the road surface was suspended over a gaping hole.
The Mission Creek bridge also had to be closed on Tuesday, though Yovanovich said it doesn’t seem to have structural damage.
“Water was going overtop the bridge, onto the sidewalk and into the parking lot,” he said.
“It was just as the point where we might have needed sandbagging, but thankfully everything subsided.”
Likewise, Yovanovich said there were near-misses at a few homes that almost needed sandbagging but the rain stopped just in time.
“We got away relatively unscathed.”
Another culvert failed by Balance Rock Road, allowing water to overwhelm the highway, and a few other flooded areas in the village showed staff where better ditching is needed. Yovanovich said Skidegate is now stocking up on sandbags, just in case.
“It’s funny,” he said, talking about the unusual intensity of the downpour.
“Two summers ago we were in drought conditions, and this July we were overwhelmed with rain every day.”
Sandbags and blown-out creeks in Queen Charlotte
In Queen Charlotte, responders did need to do some sandbagging on Tuesday, when another 61 mm of rain fell on already saturated ground.
Larry Duke said 16 volunteer firefighters sandbagged for over two hours that night, piling the bags to redirect water back under rather than over Oceanview Drive near City Centre.
Another trouble spot was the southeast corner of the Sea Raven Motel, where a creek hit a jammed culvert and started flowing straight down a driveway and over Oceanview just east of Wharf Way.
Village superintendent Ben Greenough and his crew used concrete roadblocks to redirect the overflow into the ditch in front of the motel — they were unable to access the blocked culvert, which was underneath the building.
Lori Wiedeman said that so far, the village has received no reports of flooded homes, though staff at the BC Liquor Store were calling on volunteers with steel-toed gumboots to help clear their flooded warehouse on Tuesday morning.
With backup ground wells, Queen Charlotte’s water treatment plant was not at risk of shutting down, though at one point Wiedeman said the water came rushing down from Stanley Lake so fast that it almost sucked water out from the intake as it raced by.
After managing the slide and flood response as Queen Charlotte fire chief and later flying over the Rennell Sound landslides as engineering officer for the Haida Gwaii Natural Resource District, Duke said it was some stand-out flooding.
“It was a very intense event,” he said, noting that most of the 144 mm rainfall came in two eight-hour bursts.
“I certainly haven’t seen anything like that in Queen Charlotte.”