General News

Bolton Flood victims aggravated with municipal authorities

April 18, 2019   ·   0 Comments

Written By KIRA WRONSKA DORWARD

Not since Hurricane Hazel has Bolton seen such a destructive natural disaster as the March 2019 flood. 

However, the events of March 14th, when the Humber River, previously frozen solid, overflowed its banks, crested over a retaining wall, and seeped onto the properties and into the houses of residents, was a disaster utterly preventable. Had officials done their jobs. The subsequent destruction of property and disruption of these people’s lives is an outcome lying entirely at the feet of a Town and Region that failed to do its duty and due diligence. This is their story.

The wine is flowing at Stratengers as Tracey Lehman, her partner Mike Wallace, and a neighbour wishing to remain anonymous, tell me of their harrowing experience. These are just three people and two families affected by last month’s events. More victims arrive to share their stories, in addition to the delegation of volunteers, Sherri Brioschi, Mira Budd, and Marion Upshall, who have spear-headed the efforts to organize and help the survivors of Bolton’s flood. Having spent the previous evening at Town Council explaining the situation and asking for the Town’s help, this delegation reached out to the Citizen to share events from the resident’s point of view. 

In total, this delegation represents seven families that they know of that have been affected by the Great Flood.

The story actually begins in February of this year. “There was obvious concern about the river,” says Lehman. “Numerous calls were made to the Town and the TRCA (Toronto Regional Conservation Authority), and they did nothing. Contrary to what the Mayor says, this does not happen every year.”

Yvonne McCabe, a resident of King Street East, had called the TRCA as early as February 5th. “I was here and I was going away, and I was concerned that it would flood while I was away.” McCabe, whose kitchen window faces the river, could see the unusual height of the river, about two feet before it would crest over the John Street retaining wall, and the ice jamming twenty feet from her house and onto her property. She was told by the TRCA representative that her concerns would be “passed on”, and McCabe left for her holiday. During her absence, neighbours texted her photos of the alarmingly high-water level. Another neighbour made a call to the region as well, stating “the river behind my house was frozen solid. Which has never happened in the eleven years I’ve lived here.” Residents were told by the TRCA that concerns about trees and natural fish habitation prevented the region from blasting the ice build-up with machines, as other regions like Halton Hills and Vaughan had done. So, the ice remained. However, with the next thaw in mid-March “all hell broke loose,” as McCabe puts it.

On March 13th and 14th, the TRCA had issued flood warnings. In Bolton’s Valley, the mild weather had resulted in the breaking up of the frozen river. Residents monitoring the situation became concerned around mid-day, and attempted to contact the Town, who then stated that it was the Region’s responsibility. A call made to the TRCA resulted in a message that staff was out to lunch and to leave a message. When the call was returned, the TRCA said they would send a representative out on the following Monday. 

By approximately 3:30 pm, the water began to pool in the corners of Willow and James streets. By 4:15, it had begun to flow into the intersection from the storm drains. At 4:38, Tracey Lehman phoned the Town, and after initially not receiving an answer, phoned again only to be flipped over to the nightline, again with no answer. After not being able to reach the Town, Lehman called the regional line twice before being connected to a live representative, who then issued her a work order number.

In the midst of all this administrative efficiency, she watched as “the water on the west side of Humberlea let go. When the ice came down, it had nowhere to go…the ice was too thick on the river and it just went everywhere. In the meantime, the OPP and Region came around with a big pump, turned around, and said there was nothing they could do.” 

They then left without explanation.

By six pm, with water bubbling up from the storm drains and creeping up the driveways, first responders began to appear on scene. Evacuation began around 8:30, and close to midnight all residents were told to leave. “There was nowhere the first night,” said Lehman’s neighbour, who ended up paying for her room at The Hampton Inn, she says eventually her credit cards maxed out during the duration of her stay, first ignorant of then unable to get on the list of flood victims who had their accommodation paid for by the Town (to a certain extent).  “They just told us to ‘get’. We didn’t know there was an evacuation centre until the next day.”

Many people, depending on which first responder they spoke to, were unaware of the evacuation and command centres being set up at the Recreation and Wellness Centre, where one had to register on this list to be recognized as a flood victim. Many residents, like Lehman and her husband, went to stay with family and friends after receiving little to no guidance from officials who did not know much more themselves. “If you didn’t get on the list- which meant going to the evacuation centre- it meant you didn’t exist.”

One resident was told that her address did not exist, and although she spoke to four separate fire fighters, was given no information and was subsequently missed three times on this list.

For safety, first responders began turning off the gas and power to houses affected by the flooding, which further impeded efforts at communication. “Although the Town thinks they were communicating” summarizes Lehman, “we had no radio, we had no tv, we certainly didn’t have access to the website to find out what the flip was going on.”

The next morning, Tracey Lehman and husband Mike Wallace drove to Home Depot, where they rented a pump and bought galoshes. “We were back at the house by eight am…the water was so high, I had to be careful that it didn’t go past my boots. We had to be so careful because there was ice underneath,” says Lehman.

“At 10 am, I walked out on my driveway to see how far I could walk before the water hit [the top of] my boots. At the corner of King and James, the Mayor and other officials were standing around, and no one was getting their feet wet or telling us there’s an evacuation centre,” Wallace supplied. “The Mayor told me, ‘the next time this happens, call 911, not the town.’”

By 11 am, the water had begun to recede. However, that left residents with the tasks of turning the hydro back on (up to $800 at their own expense, with Enercare not operating until the following Monday), pumping out what was left of the water, and surveying the damage to their property. Calls made to insurance companies were met with disappointing results about what would be covered, especially as only one affected resident had the “overland” flood insurance necessary for this sort of catastrophe (which, as one person pointed out, you have to specifically ask your broker for), and some residents had previously been told they could not be insured at all because of their property’s proximity to the river.

“This has been a cluster of miscommunications,” sums up Lehman. “That’s what this has really been. It was not handled well. The people involved [residents and first responders] were awesome…but the basic thing is nobody communicated well. For me, it looks like I might get 90% of a new furnace, and that’s it. I’ve done the math on this, and at the end of the day, I might get $2800 back [from insurance and the province]. And it’s going to cost up to $20-40 000 to redo the basement.”

In the aftermath of what was an utterly foreseeable and preventable catastrophe, these members of our community are left to literally pick up the pieces and figure out next steps. 

A delegation has already gone in front of Council on March 26th to ask that an emergency preparedness handbook be created to deal with such future situations with step-by-step procedures, permit fees for reconstruction be waved and fast-tracked, and have the province approve funds to be distributed among flood victims to pay for damages. However, not only do damages need to be initially repaired at cost to the victim who will be later reimbursed, but the allotments are laughably short of what is actually needed to cover the full array of costs incurred by this totally preventable natural disaster. As of this date, no resident meeting has been arranged, as one was following the explosion in Caledon Village in February, and there is still no post-command centre, which Councillor Ian Sinclair has pointed out to Council.

After the ice storm of Christmas 2013, a contingency plan had been in place for such future occurrences. However, the plan was only valid for a year. In an area that is a designated flood plain, the TRCA and the Town should have been paying their due diligence to an impending situation and taking the concerns of their constituents seriously. 

With so many questions raised about how the events of March 14 came to be, Sherri Broschi asks, “I think that the one question always in my mind is how does that process of chain of command work?”

“If they [the TRCA] had’ve done on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday what they did on the Saturday [March 15], this wouldn’t have happened,” says Lehman. “This was totally preventable. They sat on their hands…this is going to set us back years, a lifetime.”

Going forward, delegation organizer Marion Upshall tries to remain positive. “We still have a lot of work to do. The community has been fantastic…but there is much more to come.”

Delegation leader Sherri Brioschi had the final word. “There was absolutely no excuse for what happened. The Town and the Conservation Authority…it would not have happened if they had gotten off their butts and done what they needed to do. Shame on the Town, and double shame on the Conservation Authority.”



         

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