The bureaucracy of disaster: what happened on Othello Road?

Three houses were destroyed on Othello Road, but it took more than two weeks for work to begin to save the remaining properties. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request, we now know why the process took so long.

By Grace Kennedy | May 26, 2022 |5:00 am

As three homes fell into the Coquihalla River, the Fraser Valley Regional District and the provincial government waged a multi-day bureaucratic battle to decide if saving Othello Road was worth $1.7 million.

It took more than two weeks for the FVRD and Emergency Management BC to create, file, debate, and finally award the emergency funding to save Othello Road during November’s storms, correspondence released to The Current in a Freedom of Information request revealed. The emails show that as residents scrambled to save their homes, each step in the process took days to resolve.

Although the FVRD blamed the province for delays in accessing funding, the documents show it took more than a week just for the local government to submit their request.

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The beginning

On Nov. 14, 2021, the Coquihalla River began eating away at the riverbanks along Othello Road. By the following day, Graham Zillwood’s house had been washed away.

The FVRD—the municipal body that governs the rural area where Zillwood had lived—was responsible for helping protect the other homes in that area. But there wasn’t a pot of money available to pay for emergency flood protection work. (Regional Districts require homeowners to pay into “service area bylaws” to fund specific projects; Othello Road homes don’t pay for flood protection.) If the FVRD wanted to do something to stop the river from taking away more homes, it would need to ask the province for money.

On Nov. 19, the FVRD received approval from the province to bring in KWL Consulting to look at the damage the Coquihalla River was causing to Othello Road and neighbouring properties. Two days later, on Nov. 21, the team headed out to the site.

By Nov. 21, KWL Consulting had been hired to visit the site where Graham Zillwood’s house had fallen into the river. 📸 Grace Kennedy

There, KWL found that a section of gravel protecting the Coquihalla River’s bank had failed due to the atmospheric river. In their report, they wrote that if the bank armouring was not repaired it would cause “an imminent threat to life.”

On Nov. 24, nine days after Zillwood’s home had been taken away by the river, FVRD staff completed an expenditure authorization form based on KWL’s findings.

The form requested up to $1.7 million. About $1 million of that was for construction, with the remainder for engineering, environmental monitoring, and a contingency fund.

The following evening (Nov. 25), the FVRD finance department shared the form with director of planning and development and EOC director Graham Daneluz. Roughly 22 hours later (Nov. 26), Daneluz gave the approval to submit it to Emergency Management BC. On Saturday, Nov. 27, at 8:30 in the morning, the request was submitted to Emergency Management BC.

Three days had passed since the form was first completed. Six days had passed since engineers had gone out to the river to survey the damage. And 12 days had passed since Zillwood’s home was lost to the river.

The EOC team for the Fraser Valley Regional District was small—roughly 30 people covering an area of 12,000 kilometres, with dozens of different emergencies all taking place simultaneously. But the Othello Road request suggests that while the finance department worked quickly to move funding requests through the system—working both late at night and in the morning—the process bogged down when management needed to approve the requests.

It ultimately took 18 days for work to begin on Othello Road, starting from the day Zillwood’s house fell into the river. Nearly half of that time was spent in this first stage with the FVRD, just getting the funding request out the door.

The Current asked the FVRD about why it took so long to get the funding request to EMBC, specifically looking at delays on the management side. The Current also asked what the FVRD would be doing differently in future emergencies, based on its experience with funding requests during the November storms, and for more details on verbal communication between the FVRD and EMBC.

In an email, the FVRD said it would not be responding to The Current’s questions as it is currently facing litigation relating to the November disaster. Both the FVRD and the City of Abbotsford are named in a class action lawsuit claiming that those local governments didn’t do enough to warn the residents of Sumas Prairie about the severe weather and implement adequate emergency measures.

“FVRD employees and management responded in good faith to the flood,” the FVRD email read, adding that “in many ways, [staff] went above and beyond the standard procedures for responding to emergencies of this nature.”

The request

By Nov. 27, 12 days after Graham Zillwood’s house was destroyed, the FVRD had submitted an emergency authorization expense request to Emergency Management BC. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Once the funding request was sent off to EMBC, that ministry assigned it an “orange” priority. (Red priority is identified as “emergency.”) On the request, a section noted that the FVRD needed approval by 4pm on Nov. 28.

Now in the hands of Emergency Management BC, the request went through the following:

Nov. 27, 10:20am — the request was forwarded to EMBC’s operational area coordinator.

Nov. 27, 3:08pm — the request was entered into the emergency management information system.

Nov. 27, 3:20pm — the request was sent to an EMBC director, as the requested funds were above the Operations Chief’s ability to approve.

Then: nothing. For two days, no changes were made to the funding request’s file, and no emails relating to Othello Road were exchanged between the FVRD and EMBC.

(That does not necessarily mean there was no discussion at all between the two bodies—The Current’s Freedom of Information request asked for all correspondence relating to Othello Road, which would not include unrecorded phone conversations.)

Then, at 11:30am on Nov. 29, EMBC asked the FVRD for more information on the request. Within 15 minutes, the FVRD sent back the KWL Consulting report with the following note: Their report is based on information they gathered November 24th and earlier. Understandably the situation has changed drastically since then, given the continued high water runoff from the Coquihalla River.

That was an understatement. Just the day before EMBC asked the FVRD for more information, two more houses were destroyed by the Coquihalla River. Katrina and Don Page lost the dream home they had spent years restoring. Another family with kids saw their house washed away by the river as well.

At noon on Nov. 29, the request was forwarded to the Provincial Emergency Coordination Centre operations deputy chief for consideration. She forwarded it to the emergency coordination centre director 40 minutes later, saying that there should be engagement with the Department of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, as well as the federal Department of Fisheries and the provincial Inspector of Dikes.

At 1:47pm that day, the FVRD emergency operations centre director Graham Daneluz emailed the director of the Provincial Regional Emergency Operations Centres (who was no longer in charge of the FVRD’s request) to see if they could discuss funding for Othello Road.

“Do you have a minute today to discuss Othello?” Daneluz wrote in the email. “We’d like to receive approval of our existing EAF so we can get started and hopefully avoid further losses. The scope of the work will have changed since we originally submitted our EAF, but the nature of the work is the same. We’d like to receive approval, get started, then revise our EAF based on further hydrotechnical assessment.”

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The press conference

Verbal approval to begin work on Othello Road was given to the FVRD on Nov. 29, the day before the district’s press conference. 📸 Grace Kennedy

According to the FVRD, the regional district was given verbal permission to start work on Othello Road that day. But in a Nov. 30 press conference, board chair Jason Lum said it was too late. He had one message for the province: get Emergency Management BC to approve funding requests faster.

“Throughout this event, we have experienced delays in getting funding approvals,” Lum said. “Roads, water systems, diking infrastructure and sewer systems, as well as bridges, are at serious risk of either washing away or suffering catastrophic damage.

“We need our partners in government to react quickly when a response comes—not hours or days after the fact.”

The Current covered Lum’s criticisms of the province at the time, some of which centred on EMBC’s alleged lack of response to the FVRD’s request for money to shore up Othello Road. During the press conference, The Current asked Lum why it took the FVRD so long to submit the funding request to the province in the first place.

He said the district was “following a process,” and had identified risks in that area early on. Geotechnical staff had to examine the site to—in Lum’s words—“basically ground truth to the situation.”

In a statement to The Current this month, EMBC reiterated that local governments like the FVRD are “empowered to take immediate action to protect their community and critical infrastructure without waiting for provincial approvals.”

This is the same comment Minister Mike Farnworth made following the press conference in November. Lum’s response at the time was that the FVRD had no money to begin work on that particular location.

The aftermath

Although verbal approval was given to the FVRD to begin work on Nov. 29, shovels didn’t actually get in the ground until early December. 📸 Grace Kennedy

After Lum’s emergency press conference—which resulted in a back-and-forth flurry of politicking between Lum and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth—the FVRD did receive faster approvals for other emergency funding requests, Lum later said. On Othello Road, it still took a few more days for work to get underway.

An email from Danluz to the regional emergency operations centre directors on Dec. 3 indicated that work had begun on installing emergency riprap along Othello Road and Tunnels Road along the Coquihalla River.

It was not just the FVRD that was involved. Contractors, the District of Hope, and Enbridge (whose pipeline was at risk during the flooding) were also part of the construction. During a meeting, the FVRD also recommended that the Ministry of Transportation, and EMBC also be included.

More construction work was scheduled to begin on Dec. 5. But erosion had become an even bigger problem since the funding request was first submitted just over a week ago, and Daneluz said the cost of the project would likely be much greater. In his email to the directors, he said that EMBC could expect a revised expenditure authorization form in the near future.

The documents released to The Current as part of the FOI request do not include a revised request for Othello Road work similar to the original request. However, there is a separate request for $33,000 to save a house at 67701 Othello Road from falling into the river. That request was submitted on Dec. 4, and approved within two hours.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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