The looming winter makes it difficult to “unprecedented” BC highway repairs

“It’s unprecedented, the size and scope and the number of sites,” said Joe Wrobel, the president of JPW Road and Bridge, a road construction company based in the northern Okanagan.

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Repairing British Columbia’s roads washed out by heavy rains and flooding will be complicated by the extent of the damage, the terrain and next winter, construction experts say.

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“It’s unprecedented, the size and scope and the number of sites,” said Joe Wrobel, the president of JPW Road and Bridge, a road construction company based in the northern Okanagan.

Despite the extent of the damage, Wrobel, whose company is not directly involved in the flood-related repairs, said there are processes for emergency repairs, adding that the BC government has already drawn up lists of available contractors and equipment.

Before work can begin, geotechnical assessments will have to be made, Wrobel said in an interview on Wednesday. Protecting lives will be the first priority, followed by protecting infrastructure and restoring safe travel, he added.

Brenda McCabe, the president of the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering and a retired professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, said officials must first make sure repairs can be done safely. “We need to make sure the remaining slopes are stable so that crews can get in there in a safe way,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.

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In places where roads have been washed away, engineers and officials will have to decide whether to rebuild the damaged infrastructure or use new designs – decisions she said are likely to be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Our parameters for design are evolving with our better understanding of how the climate is changing and the effects that will have on weather events,” she said.

November 17, 2021 - This is the Coquihalla highway at Juliet Via @DriveBC.  A highway is closed between Hope and Merrit due to a landslide at Exit 202 (11 km south of Great Bear Snowshed).  Assessment in progress.  Estimated opening time not available.  Deviation not available.
November 17, 2021 – This is the Coquihalla highway at Juliet Via @DriveBC. A highway is closed between Hope and Merrit due to a landslide at Exit 202 (11 km south of Great Bear Snowshed). Assessment in progress. Estimated opening time not available. Deviation not available. Photo of BC Transportation /PNG

Every major route between the Lower Continent and the Interior was cut by landslides, flooding or landslides after record-breaking rainfall across southern BC between Saturday and Monday.

How long repairs will take will depend on the damage, said Ahmad Rteil, a professor of structural engineering at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia.

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In places where entire sections of road have been washed away, just assessing the damage and the stability of the soil could take more than two weeks, he said in an interview on Wednesday.

“You have to reevaluate the whole situation there along the ground, stabilize the ground, and then when you figure that out, you start building the new road, the new bridge,” Rteil said.

Winter – and freezing weather – will make repairs difficult, he added.

“As the temperature now starts to go below zero and starts to freeze, then it becomes very challenging to work with that top layer of soil,” he said, adding that it will also make it difficult to bring heavy equipment over mountain passes.

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Rteil said he fears events like this will become more frequent in the future. He said the forest fires and high heat in BC earlier this summer killed trees and increased the risk of washing out. “When the vegetation on that slope disappears, then the slope becomes unstable,” he said.

Repairing roads where debris has come down from above is likely to be relatively straightforward, while in other places, temporary bridges and bypasses may have to be built while major work is being done, Wrobel said. Areas where roads have been flooded and water levels have risen are likely to be the most complicated, he added.

Wrobel, a former president of the Canadian Construction Association, said the number of repairs needed will add to the complexity, and he said provincial officials will have to decide which projects get top priority. He said road builders from all over the country are ready to do the work.

During his career of more than 40 years, he has seen projects where the damage has been as bad as the individual websites in BC are experiencing this week. “But I’ve never seen them all at once,” he said.

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This story was produced with the financial help of Facebook and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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