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Lower Mainland braces for the worst

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

Homeowners in the Lower Mainland cities surrounding Vancouver are reminded of the real cost of their beautiful waterfront views as they prepare for the spring runoff on the Fraser River, which has the potential to cause the worst floods since the 1948 disaster that predated the dikes.

Then again, it could be a false alarm for the area, as it was in 1999 when cool weather allowed for a slow melt of the snow-packed Fraser Basin.

The worst-case scenario would be a week-long heat wave followed by heavy rains during the crucial mid-May to late-June period.

That would cause the large northern snowpack to melt quickly, leading to freshets - river floods caused by excessive amounts of melting snow - that would do damage all over the province.

"It's entirely dependent on the weather," said Dan Barnscher, Surrey's deputy fire chief, who is co-ordinating the city's emergency plan.

Surrey, along with other cities including Maple Ridge, Mission, Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Langley and New Westminster, is reinforcing dikes and infrastructure thanks to the province's $33-million flood-mitigation fund, but Deputy Chief Barnscher said the most important part of the plan is educating the public.

Preparing for the worst, Surrey is running an emergency exercise on May 12 in the vulnerable Bridgeview neighbourhood involving about 60 volunteers, including amateur radio operators and from search-and-rescue groups, engineering, the fire department and social services.

The community has been planning since January, when the River Forecast Centre first warned that B.C. snowpack was 30 to 50 per cent greater than usual.

In New Westminster, James Crosty, president of the Quayside Community Board, echoed the need to educate the public. His group represents about 2,400 in the riverside neighbourhood, adjacent to Westminster Quay Public Market, and it is working with the city on an evacuation plan for about 4,000 people.

The dikes were built to accommodate the water levels of an 1899 flood, which didn't anticipate underground parking and power sources and elevators that go to the basement.

"We will get 48 hours notice if we have to evacuate. And if there's a flood, it will go into the parking garages -- there would very little loss of personal property -- but it could knock out hydro and phones," Mr. Crosty said.

The city has arranged for alternative parking, and the evacuation plan includes a map of where elderly and handicapped people live, and pets as well, in the event the elevators are not working.

"Our goal is that no one can say, 'I didn't know this was happening.'"

Along the quay, there is visible evidence of the B.C. Emergency Program in the stacks of one-tonne white sandbags -- some of the 3.3 million sandbags that have already been distributed provincewide. The program has another four million in reserve. It also supplies the machines and sand for building the emergency dikes that would be necessary if the river overflowed its banks and flooded shops in the public market and on Front Street.

The program is involved as well in running flood-preparation workshops for government and emergency workers and the public in the hazardous regions of the province.

John Oakley, manager for the southwest region, said he has been impressed by the lack of panic and the superb organization at all levels of government and with the public.

"I've been to a number of community meetings and it has been very encouraging. People are really seeking out information -- perhaps because of those winter storms we had," Mr. Oakley said, adding that he hadn't seen anything in the long-range weather forecasts that suggested danger.

"But it's prudent to be prepared. And I've been in the [emergency-preparation] business long enough to know that you can't predict what nature will do. If the weather is favourable and we escape without any issues, good. But if it isn't, the water could be high for weeks and have an impact on the dikes."

5 Apr 2007