A pedestrian on a trail beside Ellis Creek takes a break to watch the swift-moving water Saturday afternoon near Penticton Regional Hospital. Earlier in the day a city watermain broke under a portion of the creek. As well, a boil water advisory has been issued for some parts of the city. Mark Brett/Western News

Lessons learned from emergency

Leaders say emergency response was good but they would like to see changes

The South Okanagan wasn’t hit as badly by the heavy rain, high waters and flooding as the north and central parts of the valley but it didn’t escape entirely.

Karla Kozakevich, chair of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, thinks the RDOS staff and volunteers have done an exceptional job keeping up with the emergency situations popping up around the district.

So far, that includes washed out roads and culverts, voluntary evacuation orders and boil water advisories for certain areas, thanks to all the debris being pushed into Okanagan Lake by the torrents that were formerly quiet creeks.

More: Boil water notice for Naramata, water advisory continues

Kozakevich joined staff at the Regional District’s emergency operations centre after it was set up Friday, so she could stay in the loop on what areas of the large district were having problems and how staff were handling it. She said there was no shortage of staff over the weekend willing to lend a hand.

“People are always in here to help out whenever needed as well as boots on the ground, people on site to investigate and take pictures for us,” said Kozakevich.

By Tuesday morning, Kozakevich said they were seeing progress in the battle against rising waters. Residents had been able to return home in the Indian Road area of Naramata, where there had been concerns of a bridge washing out, while other areas were coping.

“Chute Lake Road, up where it is dirt has had a lot of issues with it being washed out and crevices through it,” said Kozakevich. “There’s people out there that are a little bit trapped but we’ve had Search and Rescue go out to check on people and see if they need supplies or anything like that.”

Boil water advisories continue in Sage Mesa and Naramata, which Kozakevich said is a side effect of the turbidity from the creeks.

“There’s way too much dirt coming down the creeks and into Okanagan Lake and then, of course, that’s where we draw from,” said Kozakevich, adding some areas of the district have begun to settle down, but they are not sure what coming weeks will bring.

“What we do know is as the temperatures warm more we’re going to see more water come down,” she said. “There’s a lot of water up in the hills still to come down and the hills are just saturated. It’s so wet.”

The district was prepared, with sand and sandbags available and pre-plans in place, but Kozakevich questions that as long as they know the spring melt is coming, why not take preparedness further.

“Why not do some of this work ahead of time? Get some of the excavators in and do some of the shoring up of some of the creeks ahead of time?” she asked, noting that work is funded by the province and tends to be reactive.

“Something has to go wrong for that to get implemented, for that funding to be put in place. So it would be nice in the future if we can find some ways to be more proactive,” said Kozakevich.

Some private property owners Kozakevich has talked to are thinking that way, she said, and realizing this kind of high water situation is going to occur again, whether it be in two years or 10 years.

That’s needed, she explained, as we see environmental and weather changes.

“Just a few years ago the worry was always around forest fires. That’s still a worry — well, not right now it’s not,” she said. “But now we have to worry about the flooding.

“We might see more flooding issues than forest fire issues.”

Penticton wasn’t affected directly by the high water in Penticton and Ellis Creeks, but did find itself dealing with a major water main break in the midst of other concerns over the weekend, causing them to issue a precautionary water quality advisory to about 2,500 homes and two elementary schools.

Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said the city is treating it as a learning moment for their emergency communications, asking how effectively they are communicating with residents about these kind of situations. The news media, he said, did a good job of helping spread the word, as did social media, but not everyone is tuned into those channels.

Some people, Jakubeit suggested, might not have heard about the water quality advisory until connected friends and family spread the word.

“We don’t have a mass email list that we could just blast all the residents: here’s the scenario, here’s the situation,” said Jakubeit. “I think moving forward that’s what we need. We need to build the capacity in terms of emergency response protocols to make sure people are informed.”

The idea wouldn’t be to spam people with city communications, but to make sure that with a critical event, information is getting out to people.

“That will help us get the information of people sooner,” said Jakubeit. “On a more serious event, we can inform people … and have the confidence that everyone is getting the message out there and everyone is being alerted.