Reconnecting Roads After Massive Flooding
Reconnecting Roads after Massive Flooding
A catastrophic weather event destroyed roads and cut off British Columbia’s lower mainland, including Vancouver, from the rest of Canada.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) used a project management approach based on A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) to prioritize repairs and reopen critical routes as quickly as possible. This included:
- Identifying critical paths.
- Creating a work breakdown structure.
- Implementing communication protocols.
- Risk assessment.
- Management of contributors and interested parties.
Highway 5, the principal corridor for transportation of goods to and from the port of Vancouver, was reopened to commercial traffic in 35 days.
In November 2021, a unique weather event called an atmospheric river flowed across the province of British Columbia, Canada, leaving devastation in its wake. A near-record amount of rain caused severe flooding, landslides, and bridge collapses, and eventually forced every major connection between the lower mainland and the interior of British Columbia to close.
Towns were completely cut off, travelers were left stranded and unable to get home, and an already struggling supply chain was further crippled because no commercial traffic — including rail and truck traffic from the nation’s largest port, the Port of Vancouver — could move through the province.
Ultimately, the responsibility of getting British Columbia’s roads up and running again fell to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI). It was a challenge like nothing the organization had ever seen.
Jennifer Fraser, executive project director, Highway Reinstatement Program, MoTI
“The scale of destruction that we faced and the work ahead of us — to be able to reconnect people to jobs, to be able to reconnect our supply chains, to be able to allow people to go about their lives again — was immense,” said Jennifer Fraser, executive project director, Highway Reinstatement Program, MoTI. “Once we got over the shock and awe of the incredible damage that happened in British Columbia, we very quickly shifted gears and recognized that we needed to make a plan for how we were going to reopen at least one critical linkage.”
The team decided to work to reopen Highway 5 first. The 186-kilometer (116-mile) stretch of north-south road, also known as the Coquihalla Highway, serves as the backbone of the province’s economy. It is the principal corridor that moves goods from the coast into the interior and from the rest of Canada back into the Port of Vancouver. It serves the 2.5 million people that live in the Lower Mainland and accommodates 5,000 commercial vehicles and approximately CAD$250 million goods moved on any given day.
“Highway 5 is that critical linkage between the interior and the coast,” said Fraser. “Not having Highway 5 meant that grocery store shelves were bare in towns.”
At the same time, Highway 5 serves as the link between British Columbia and the rest of Canada. Reopening this essential roadway would be a significant step in getting the province and its people back on their feet. But to make it happen, the MoTI would have to change how they typically approach these projects.
“For the first time, we took a project management approach and adapted it to that emergency response,” said Fraser. “In the past, we would approach emergency repairs not so much as a project, but just as part of our operations.”
Maike Schimpf, PMP, former Highway 5 corridor director, MoTI
Once the project team — led by Maike Schimpf, PMP, former Highway 5 corridor director, MoTI, and Kevin Weicker, engineering director for capital projects, MOTI — set their sights on Highway 5, their goal was to get it up and running as quickly as possible. And while they purposefully never made promises to the public, the team was able to open the road to commercial traffic just 35 days after the atmospheric river event occurred.
Taking the Project Management Route
To make such a tight time line possible, the team decided it was necessary to use a project management approach.
“Once an aggressive time line became the mission, we had to prioritize schedule over everything,” said Fraser. “And we had to take full responsibility and full accountability to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
This differed from MoTI’s usual approach to emergencies, in which the team would have worked through the devastation by moving from washout to washout or debris pile to debris pile, and individually planning when they got there to clean it up.
“Had we not said, ‘the Coquihalla is a project, and we need to unite around the schedule,’ it would not have had the same level of success, because it would’ve been ‘this person’s in charge of that site, that person’s in charge of that site and they just kind of have to talk to one another.’ It would’ve become much more disjointed,” said Fraser. “Whereas by looking at each cleanup or washout as one part of the whole project and prioritizing our objectives around a schedule, it was then left to the team to say, ‘how do we solve this problem?’”
To come up with that answer, the team started by flying the complete path of the highway to survey the damage via helicopter and identifying the sites where work would need to happen along the highway. From there, they locked themselves in a room with their team for a day and worked to create scopes for how the construction team was going to fix debris flows, bridges, culverts and washouts at a very high level.
The initial goal was to get construction access along the highway as quickly as possible. That meant once some sites were cleared of debris, the team would leave them and keep moving forward so progress could continue.
“We looked at each of the individual sites and created a scope for each,” said Fraser. “We identified what the critical path was and what we needed to get done — that is, which sites we needed to get past to be able to move to the next one. And then we created our work breakdown structure of what needs to be done and then what order and sequences.”
Those instructions were handed out to the individual construction teams, and from there, the team’s priority was to begin mobilizing equipment and blasting rock at every quarry available to ensure construction crews had the material they needed.
“In typical road construction, you need rock for every site,” said Schimpf. “So, we needed to start producing rock because it doesn’t just magically come out of the air. But we were able to start stockpiling rock and equipment and things like that, so that as soon as a site was clear and safe to begin work, we could just start bringing the equipment across.”
Managing Delays and Detours
Kevin Weicker, engineering director for capital projects, MOTI
While all this work was happening, Schimpf, Weicker, and their team had to remain flexible and adaptable to situations that continued to impact the effort, such as additional atmospheric rivers and snow.
There were times, for instance, that it got to be -20 to -25 degrees Celsius (-4 to -13 degrees Fahrenheit) or colder with a windchill and blistering snow.
“The construction crews were out there trying to continue advancing works while they were dealing with several feet of snow,” said Fraser. “They were actively trying to plow the snow while they were trying to create roads. That was one where we had to be quite flexible and where we called them because the weather was so severe, and we didn't want crews to get injured or hurt.”
Even when they could keep crews working, the weather often forced them to make changes to materials and equipment.
“For example, we had to adapt the thickness of the asphalt that we were putting down,” said Schimpf. “Normally we would put down asphalt that is a certain thickness. But we quickly realized that we could not put down asphalt like we normally would and had to use thinner lifts because it was so cold.”
To ensure the project wasn’t delayed when changes had to be made, Schimpf and Weicker were constantly available for problem-solving. They often relied on quick conversations and consultations with team members to make decisions about how the scope needed to change. The team also established quick daily communication protocols with a check-in every morning and every night.
“I think one thing for flexibility that worked well for us is that I have a project management focus, whereas Kevin is an engineer and understands all the engineering principles and what could happen,” said Schimpf. “And we spent most of those 35 days on site so when faced with decisions and problems, we were able to come to quick solutions where we could work with the contractors and their engineers to assess risks and make really quick decisions.”
The Road Reopens
The Highway 5 team ultimately had more than 300 people working 24 hours a day, as well as government parties, vendors, and suppliers who had to come together and collaborate to make the five-week deadline possible.
According to Schimpf, the nature of the project helped drive much of that collaboration.
“When this happened, obviously the impact was provincial in nature,” she said. “There was an outpouring of offering from the contracting community, from volunteer organizations and from all possible entities, who were phoning us to see if there was something they could do to help. There was a willingness and interest to support this effort.”
The team also relied on existing relationships that had been built at the local community level and in the construction industry, as well as with organizations such as the BC Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies British Columbia.
“If we didn't have those existing relationships, it would have been incredibly hard to build a relationship in the midst of chaos and crisis,” Schimpf said.
Throughout the project, the team also worked to build trust with executive sponsors and government leaders through constant communication, including daily briefings.
“They did not usually schedule briefings and it would be, ‘you need to tell us everything that you’re doing right now and what the plan is,’” said Schimpf. “We always had a presentation with the exact status of everything, so if at any time I got a phone call that said ‘you need to give me an update,’ I could walk through the status of each site. We just wanted to build trust to show we had a plan for each individual site. We knew the exact status and knew what our schedule was for the sites.”
That trust, the relationships built as well as the hard work of the construction crews and the project planning all helped the ministry reopen Highway 5 to commercial traffic in late December, just 35 days after the atmospheric river made its way through the province. In January, the road was opened to regular traffic.
Although there is more work to be done, Fraser says the ministry and the community they serve feel good about the progress they have made, with many of the lessons learned helping to inform continued efforts to fully open the Coquihalla and other roadways throughout the province.