West Carleton’s riverside on high alert

By Jake Davies - West Carleton Online

(Editor’s note: As we did during the 2017 flood, 2018 tornado, 2019 flood and COVID-19 pandemic, we will be making our coverage of potential extreme flooding in 2023 free access to our entire community to hopefully provide flooding updates, important information and resources to the entire West Carleton communty and beyond, so those outside the area can better understand what is happing in our rural community)

WILLOLA BEACH – Every time West Carleton Online speaks to Willola Beach homeowner David McKay, he’s battling a flood.

In 2019, some of the worst flooding in the West Carleton area on record, Dave and his wife Phaedra had to make a bridge from his front door to the road, so the military could bring sandbags from the road to his house.

His house survived but needed massive renovations. New doors, new drywall because it cracked everywhere, new floors because the wood warped and buckled after nearly a month of water in his house. It was a learning experience too. Dave noticed the room with bamboo flooring came through the 2019 flooding without a scratch.

“If we need new flooring after this, it will be all bamboo,” Dave said.

A photo of people filling sandbags.
Phaedra McKay fills sandbags at the Willola Beach sandbag station to protect her home with the help of neighbour Rob. Photo by Jake Davies

By absolute coincidence, when West Carleton Online pulled in to the tiny riverside community this morning (April 18) four years nearly to the day since we last spoke, there was Dave, his wife Phaedra and their friend and neighbour Rob, filling sandbags at the sandbag station.

“If we get what they are calling for, it will surround my house and cover my septic system,” Dave told West Carleton Online. “We’ll need port-a-potties.”

What a difference a day makes. Six days ago (April 12), at Ward 5 Coun. Clarke Kelly’s special flood meeting, Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) water resources technologist Jennifer North said the waterways were looking good. The Mississippi River had peaked, and the Carp River was about to.

“I’m optimistic based on what we’ve seen before, but things can change rapidly,” the MVCA’s flood forecaster said.

She was half right.

On Monday, (April 17) the MVCA switched Friday’s (April 14) flood watch status to a flood warning status.

“The (Ottawa River Regulating Committee) anticipates water levels along the main stem of the Ottawa River are expected to exceed major flood levels, impacting several streets, lawns and houses in low-lying areas,” North said yesterday. “Flood levels are expected to remain well below historic high flood levels.”

Currently, as of today (April 18) at 7 a.m. the water level at Constance Bay is 59.52 metres. The forecast expects it to reach 60.23 m in the next day or two. For reference, the 2017 peak was 60.44 m and the 2019 peak was 60.75 m.

Like many in West Carleton, this is Dave’s third time preparing to battle extreme flooding in the last six years. Residents say there has only been two floods in the last 25 years.

A photo of a sandbag chain.
Volunteers work to help save Dave McKay’s house in 2019, needing a bridge to get sandbags from the road to his house. Photo by Jake Davies

“I’m here with Rob and my wife Phaedra,” Dave said. “He’s a little higher up than we are, but that’s how it works around here. People come out and we all sort of work together. There’s a couple more neighbours who are going to come out a little later in the morning.”

Dave was also at last week’s flood meeting. Living on the Ottawa River, Dave says he believes his is the lowest property in Willola Beach. He’s seen the aforementioned drastic water level changes first hand. Phaedra shoved a stick at the shoreline by their house every day for the last week. The ones still standing are now several feet out from the shoreline.

“Preliminary forecasts were things would be okay, but the river has steadily climbed,” he said. “It’s now what I consider menacing. Were sandbagging as a precaution just to make sure the waves don’t damage the footings or the foundation.”

In 2019, Dave was one of those who had help from the army. A group, no surprise, that could really pump out the sandbags.

“The army was there helping, and they had created sort of a fire brigade chain, passing sandbags hand-to-hand, and it went down that bridge, through the house and there was a deck on the riverside and they were simply tossing them in to the water over the ledge,” he said. “The water had come up maybe 30 or 40 centimetres above the deck. With the help of the army, we placed around 6,000 bags.”

In the last two days, he and his wife and Rob have been able to fill about 300 bags.

“We’ll keep going,” Dave said. “I figure minimum we’ll have about 500 bags out. I expect probably more.”

Dave has seen a few neighbours out sandbagging as well. The déjà vu is frustrating for the McKays. Phaedra says she was supposed to be on vacation. Dave says he appreciates the city’s response so far. Despite the challenging times.

“Right now, we’re staying hopeful,” Dave said. “The fear is it will reach 2019 levels. It is traumatizing.”

This time, he feels more supported by the city.

A photo of people working in a room with computers.
Ward 5 Coun. Clarke Kelly, left, talks with a volunteer with staffer Lisa McGee over the phone in a flood command centre set up in the Constance Bay community centre April 18. Photo by Jake Davies

“If I go back to 2017, it was a learning experience for them,” Dave said. “In 2019 they were pretty well prepared, but they were reacting. In between this, during the pandemic, they dropped sandbags off as a precaution, but we never really needed them. Now, we do need them. They’ve orchestrated a team to help us down here. We have Ottawa Public Health, WCDR, the city itself and they have all the material set up. In the old days, you just got a dump of sand and had to fill them up. Now they have filling stations, and instructions. I think they’ve done a good job. I’m happy with them.”

For those around for the previous two floods, which West Carleton Online publisher Jake Davies was, you could see the knowledge gained. Like Dave’s bamboo floor, experience shows you something manuals can not. Sometime during the 2019 flood, not seen in 2017, city staff adopted or invented these manual sandfilling stations. A City of Ottawa temporary wooden barrier, looking like a sawhorse, could hold three upside down pylons with holes cut in the bottom (see first photo in story). This simple device, basically a funnel, increased sandbag productivity 10-fold. Now they are seen at every sandbag station in West Carleton in 2023.

In Constance Bay, the emergency response is much more noticeable this morning.

Coun. Kelly and his staff and are setting up a joint headquarters along with the West Carleton Disaster Relief (WCDR) at the Constance Bay community centre (262 Len Purcell Dr.) while a crew of city staff and volunteers are hauling, piling and sandbagging sand in the parking lot.

Dump trucks and front-end loaders are creating giant piles of sand, and volunteers, residents and city staff are turning the piles in to sandbags.

Inside the community centre, computers, printers and communications infrastructure are being set up in a small room downstairs. Kelly and staffer Lisa McGee are fielding phone calls and working on supports.

A group of volunteers pose for a photo.
Dunrobin resident Alex Lawson (far right), owner of Capital Framers, brought his team out to help fill sandbags Tuesday. Photo by Jake Davies

The two are currently in a conversation with volunteer firefighter Paul Asmis, who led the flood response in the Dunrobin area along the Ottawa River known as Armitage Avenue in 2019.

He is not in town, but he reached out to the councillor to offer his assistance this year. WCDR co-chair and Constance Bay resident Heather Lucente is in the same room, working on logistics.

Kelly says the city has done a good job, but can do a lot better. City staff have told volunteers their dump trucks are not allowed to deliver sand. All they can do is deliver it to the community centre. Volunteers were able to get one load out to an 87-year-old man on Bayview Drive, but that’s it. No more deliveries.

Lucente says that wasn’t the case in 2019, and Kelly is working to reverse the current stance. He’s also looking to call some of the local construction companies to see if they can help out.

“We’re looking at a lot of precipitation and a quick snowmelt north of us, North Bay, Sudbury, all the way up to Temiskaming, the snowpack has a lot of moisture in it and they’re getting a lot of rain, which has drastically changed our predictions,” Kelly told West Carleton Online. “When we held that flood meeting last Wednesday things looked good in terms of the freshet and what we were going to face. But by Monday (April 17) midday, things were looking a lot different. So, here we are at the Constance Bay community centre trying to coordinate efforts to protect people’s properties. Thanks to people like (volunteer) Alex Lawson, we’ve got a good crew out there, working away. He’s done this before. I’m thankful for people like him coming out.”

Neither the 2017, or even the 2019 response, looked this big at this stage of the freshet.

“I think there’s been some improvement in our response, but there are still areas I would like to see some more improvement,” Kelly said. “I would like to see things move a little quicker in terms of people getting sandbags to people’s properties. I think we’re doing good and getting sand dropped off, and getting sandbags filled right now, but really, we need to get those sandbags moved out of here and to people’s properties, and we’re working with WCDR to coordinate volunteers at people’s properties and move sandbags.”

A dump truck dumps its load.
A City of Ottawa dump truck delivers sand to the Constance Bay sandbag filling station at the community centre. Photo by Jake Davies

Kelly expects West Carleton’s latest flood threat will take most of his attention over the next few days, and hopefully not, weeks.

“I’ve got my rubber boots here and I’m ready to rock,” he said. “I’ll just keep at it until everybody’s home is protected and having their needs met during this emergency.”

WCDR was born out of the 2017 flood, then known as Constance Bay Flood Relief and made up mostly of Constance Bay residents responding to that flood. Then the 2018 tornado hit and WCDR became an official not-for-profit volunteer organization with a wider geographical mandate. While still cleaning up from the tornado, the 2019 flood hit, and the all-volunteer organization that fundraised all its own revenue, was working on two natural disasters at one time.

Lucente, now the co-chair of WCDR, has been at the volunteer front of all those disasters and recovery efforts. Her experience and willingness to help means the world to a community during times of crisis. This morning she sent a quick email to her employer to say she couldn’t come in today – flood.

“We’ve got our command centre just starting,” Lucente said. “We have volunteers here filling sandbags, helping people make sandbag walls, and we’re going to be feeding them throughout the day, and we’re looking for more volunteers.”

WCDR said they received notification from their partners around 5 p.m. yesterday (April 17) things have changed from minor flooding to major flooding.

“Between 5 p.m. yesterday and 7 a.m. this morning, there has been a lot of work done in the background, just trying to get our communications up and running, and our website and social media ready so it is able to receive those requests for help as well as accepting volunteers trying to find out information about where they should come to help,” Lucente said. “As well there’s some donations of equipment and supplies. These donations have always been a Godsend for all our disasters.”

If you would like to volunteer or donate, the best way to do so is through the WCDR’s website westcarletonrelief.ca. Those who need help can also ask for it through the WCDR website.

“Our email is right on there,” Lucente said. “Current conditions. There are forms for volunteering, forms for requesting sandbags, and anybody who would like to donate or lend supplies or equipment can contact us through there as well.”

Lucente says this freshet is acting differently than the 2017 and 2019 floods, creating new issues and worries in protection and management.

“It’s rising really quickly,” she said. “Looking at the forecast models, the trajectory is really steep, which we haven’t seen before. That makes me a little bit concerned the levels they are forecasting aren’t going to be where we are going to end up and they might be higher than that. They are only able to forecast out so far. So we’re preparing our efforts around hitting that 2019 level. Hopefully we don’t, but it’s not an impossibility we’re going to get there. We still have all that northern water to come down. Usually, we get that first little peak, and then we get that secondary, higher peak when the northern water comes down. We’re going to be developing our teams and are systems to be able to accommodate getting enough volunteers to get out and protect property, so we can get ahead of that wave. We are again late to the game. The last couple of days, no one expected this was going to increase so quickly so, we need all the help we can get to stay ahead of it, and we’re going to prioritize properties based on their elevation. We’re going to get to those lowest-lying properties first and get those sandbag walls built up a little bit, so the water doesn’t come in to their property. Then we’re going to come back when we can and build those walls up higher. So that’s our strategy, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to get that going and a lot of other volunteer organizations to partner with to ensure we can support our community properly.”

The WCDR recommends you visit their website regularly. Lucente expects the site will be updated hourly with information on levels and the volunteer effort, and what is needed.

“Going through this evening, we’ll be working on that,” Lucente said.

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