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B.C. storm disrupts supply chain, could have lasting impacts on economy: experts

All major highways between B.C.’s Lower Mainland and the Interior severed by severe rainfall
A woman and children who were stranded by high water due to flooding are rescued by a volunteer operating a boat Abbotsford, British Columbia on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Officials in a small city near the Canada border are calling the damage devastating after a storm that dumped rain for days caused flooding and mudslides. City officials in Sumas, Washington said Tuesday that hundreds of people had been evacuated and estimated that 75% of homes had water damage. Just over the border, residents in about 1,100 rural homes in Abbotsford were told to evacuate as waterways started to rise quickly. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

Highway and railway closures caused by severe storms in British Columbia will have a significant and lasting impact on the province’s economy, the president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce says.

Fiona Famulak said industries across the supply chain will be affected and is calling on all levels of government to act with urgency to allocate the resources needed to replace the lost infrastructure.

“We need to move from response to recovery very quickly,” she said. “We cannot be complacent. We need our trade corridors to be reopened and the movement of people, goods and services to be re-established as soon as possible.”

All major highways between B.C.’s Lower Mainland and the Interior were severed, some in several locations, when record rainfall washed away bridges and roads over a 24-hour period starting Sunday.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said Highway 3 is likely to be the quickest route to reopen, possibly by the end of the weekend, but damage to Highway 1 and the Coquihalla Highway is so extreme that geotechnical assessments won’t be possible until conditions are drier.

He said Highway 7 west of Agassiz reopened Tuesday to emergency vehicles only to allow stranded passengers to be taken out of the area. Maintenance contractors are gathering heavy equipment to begin rebuilding roads when they can safely do so.

“Our number 1 priority is getting our roadways back up and in operation, and we will provide whatever resources are necessary to make that happen,” he said. “We fully recognize how important it is right now in British Columbia to reopen the road connections from the Lower Mainland to the Interior to get supply chains moving again.”

Following reports of food shortages and hoarding at grocery stores, Canadian food retailer Save-On-Foods said in a statement that all shipments in and out of the Lower Mainland have been put on hold due to road conditions.

“We are exploring all avenues to get product to our stores as quickly as possible,” it said.

When asked about the buying panic at a news conference Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth encouraged B.C. residents to be patient, saying there are alternative solutions to transport food and there is “lots of supply.”

B.C. Trucking Association President Dave Earle said hundreds of truck drivers were unable to finish their routes due to the highway closures, but none reported being injured as a result of the flooding or landslides.

“Monday was all about protection of life and now we are focused on assessment, and clearly there’s serious infrastructure damage on at least two of our four main routes,” he said. “We have hundreds of commercial vehicles stuck and we’re all waiting to see how we can unwind this knot.”

David Gillen, the director for the centre for transportation studies at the University of British Columbia, estimates it will take about two weeks for repairs to allow normal traffic flow to resume, but it will be months for a complete recovery because road work is limited during winter months.

“It’s going to take some time until these routes are repaired enough for trucks to travel but there is some degree of substitutability that there isn’t with railroads because you basically have two main lines and they’re both severely hampered. They have to be rebuilt,” Gillen said.

Canada’s two largest railways said they expect it will take another couple of days before their main lines in southern B.C. reopen. Canadian National Railway chief operating officer Rob Reilly said heavy rain made the tracks impassable.

“We’ve had the railroad out of service getting to Vancouver since Sunday afternoon. Quite frankly, we’ll probably be out a couple more days,” Reilly told a transportation conference Tuesday.

The track outages are also hindering the movement of goods to and from the country’s largest port in Vancouver.

Barry Prentice, a supply chain management professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said importing and exporting at B.C. ports poses a significant problem should highways and railways remain inoperable.

“Transportation is an invisible industry until something goes wrong,” he said. “We take it for granted more than we should as a society because without transportation we don’t have trade, and without trade we don’t have an economy.”

—Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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