By RENÉ J. ROY, Editor-in-Chief
– with files from Ryan King and Rosalyn Roy
PORT AUX BASQUES– It seems that for the most part, Port aux Basques came through the storm pretty lucky. At least that’s the opinion of Mayor Brian Button, and Town Manager Leon MacIsaac. But they both admitted to being a bit worried at times.
An atmospheric river dumped a record 165 mm of rain on the town within a 24 hour period, while the Codroy Valley saw 195 mm of rain. The deluge caused four washouts along the Trans Canada Highway, effectively cutting off the Southwest coast communities from the rest of the province.
Button says, “What we feared might happen, what could have happened, didn’t. Our infrastructure held up. No doubt it was taxed, but they did hold up. We did have our trouble areas, of course.”
Said MacIsaac, “Rat Island sewage pump station, that just got overcome with rainwater infiltration. Typically in this area there aren’t two systems for sanitary and rainwater. Our pumps couldn’t keep up at that capacity, so we had to bring in our large six inch portable pump to try to disperse it offshore.”
Dispersing the rainwater mix into the ocean was unquestionably a last resort, and not a decision the Town took lightly. But given that approximately half of Andy’s Rainbow Park was underwater, it was the only available choice.
“Its not something we would do on a continued basis of course, but again, the sewage pump stations don’t provide treatment, they only provide containment. So we dispersed it out into the ocean as a temporary measure. If not, it would have just started backing up into everybody’s homes. And we certainly don’t want that,” added MacIsaac.
The portable pump was removed early Thursday morning.
Mayor Button also took to social media more than once to update residents. Although the area is now geographically isolated by road, Marine Atlantic will continue to shuttle freight to the Port aux Basques terminal using the MV Leif Erickson while the other two vessels are rerouted to Argentia to keep the supply chain intact for the rest of the province.
The provincial government has also stepped in, and residents can now call for airlifts not only for emergencies, but to make necessary medical appointments. Food and goods are also being transported into the region using helicopters, and by Friday the Federal Liberal government had declared it was also sending in military support.
Given the response from government and local businesses who pitched in to help out, Button refrained from declaring a state of emergency.
“Usually what a state of emergency is – if the town and our crews can’t handle what’s going on, and we’re maxed out to capacity, and not able to carry on any longer, and we need more assistance. That hasn’t been the case,” said Button.
The mayor also noted that declaring a state of emergency at this point would not change the situation the town is in.
Nikita Roberts is the Harbor Supervisor for the Harbour Authority. She admitted that she was pretty nervous about the storm surge.
“The floating docks take a hit every year. We don’t have a whole lot of shelter in this harbour at all, so they pretty much get beat up every year.”
Roberts said that the waterfront suffered no damage, which came as a great relief.
“I did take a video of the surge coming up on the boardwalk, and it was coming right over the boardwalk. So I think I was more concerned about the water levels getting to the point of flooding.”
The other serious concern was near the Train Museum at the off ramp into Port aux Basques from the Trans Canada Highway. The water was quite high and pooled across the entire roadway and the low field near the gazebo, cutting off a major artery in and out of town.
“The storm water system up there, that storm water comes from a pond behind St. James Regional High, and the seniors apartment up there. That’s all contained through a culverting system that has a small opening at the gazebo. Water flows much better in an open ditch then it does inside of a culvert,” explained MacIsaac.
“The tide also was high. The pipe was at the high water mark, but because the water levels at Grand Bay Bottom Brook was much higher, well we decided to just leave it, and when the tide went down, the water receded and the problem resolved itself.”
Cheryl Dingwall is the Business Development Officer at the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber offices are located inside the Train Station Museum, and there was some damage.
“We did have leaks in our roof. We had existing leaks prior to the storm, but we ended up with another leak during the storm that wasn’t there before. The parking lot was flooded and barricaded off, and the town workers were in here trying to do something to control the water levels.”
Dingwall adds that a little bit of interior damage did occur, but nothing terribly serious.
Button also noted another trouble spot at Cox’s Avenue in Grand Bay.
“It wasn’t a system that wasn’t working, but up that area, residents up there experienced some flooding in their homes. The tides were so high, the water levels were so high, that the system just couldn’t churn it out.”
One of their greatest worries was a potential loss of power, which did not happen.
“We were very fortunate,” says MacIsaac .”The big worry is that losing power, Andy’s substation is not able to run. The amount of people that received water in their homes would have been much more extensive.”
Button echoed those concerns.
“We had several conversations before this storm started, and we were both of the same mind, which was you know ‘There’s a whole combination of things that can happen here,’ and if the power did go and we did run into that problem, we were definitely going to have more flooding.”
Without sump pumps, or generators to power them, water simply would have risen unabated and flooded more homes. Button confessed to being concerned as well about the Trans Canada Highway, before the storm even started.
“That unfortunately came true. I feared that we could see a washout, but its unfortunate that its more than one.”
The town had prepared for the worst case scenario, including emergency evacuation of residents.
“The Town of Port aux Basques has an emergency operations plan in place,” said MacIsaac. “The last time that was adopted was in 2019. And there’s a protocol that we have to follow in that event too.”
Once the storm subsided, representatives from the town, emergency services and the provincial government began assessing damage and urgent needs.
Premier Andrew Furey and Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Elvis Loveless visited the region via helicopter to get a first hand look. Repairs to the Trans Canada Highway have been estimated to take about a week. Meanwhile rain continued to fall, sometimes heavily, on Saturday morning.
While goods and essentials are being helicoptered in, that hasn’t stopped some from panic buying. There were lineups at gas stations as people filled their vehicles. In the Codroy Valley there were limits on the amount of gas that could be purchased, as well as restrictions on essentials like bread and toilet paper.
It has become so worrisome that MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) practically pleaded with the citizenry during interviews and on social media to not hoard.
“We are currently talking to the service stations in town, the grocery stores in town. We’ve had conversations. For the fuel part, I just had a message from one of the stations here, and they are looking at the possibility of getting fuel brought in from the mainland.”
MacIsaac observed that he’s not trying to discourage people from buying fuel, but to at least consider that, “The more you buy, the less there is for crews to go out and work on repairs. They need to get up and down the highway to work on it, and they can’t if there’s no fuel left.”
If there’s a potential bright side, it may be that the storm has offered up a few lessons in its wake.
“It did show some possible flaws (in the system). We took some proactive measures up on Grand Bay West road, up near the cement plant there. We noticed that there was a large volume of water at the culvert there. So we said ‘Well let’s bar it off, just in case’,” said MacIsaac, who plans to monitor the troubled areas closely over the next few days. “For all intents and purposes, everything acted how it should have, based on the volume of water that went through it.”
Parsons, who has visited the washout sites, shared that pro-active measures are being included as part of the highway repair, starting with bigger culverts reinforced by hexbars. Larger considerations will have to wait until after the more pressing issues have been resolved.
“There’s some people that are making this a climate change conversation, and maybe it is,” conceded Parsons. “But it’s not an issue I’m dealing with in the next 48 hours.”