By Jenna Cocullo
On Tuesday, Mayor Darrin Canniff will be signing official documents lifting one state of emergency in Chatham-Kent, following the reopening of Erie Shore Drive.
Council passed a bylaw at Monday night’s meeting to reopen Erie Shore Drive as a one-way, local-traffic-only road.
“It’s really good news. All along, whenever asked, I’ve been saying we were working as hard as we can to get residents back out to their places. So the municipality’s workers out there really worked their butts off. So is it a permanent solution? No. But it’s a solution that gets them back to their places,” said Canniff.
The mayor is recommending that homeowners use the opportunity to spend a weekend in their homes or to fix them up, without moving in permanently just yet.
“There are still getting pelted with water and there are still a lot of issues out there,” he said. “But at least now the dike is dealt with. It’s still not safe to be out there yet. So if there’s flooding we may have to close the road again. The long-term solution is still a year to two years out.”
Thomas Kelly, general manager of infrastructure and engineering for the municipality, said that while they originally estimated repairs to last six to eight weeks, working around the clock and lucky breaks such as suppliers delivering them clay sooner than expected shortened the workload to just four weeks.
“So all of those factors created the situation that we now have. I’m still concerned with some of the commentary I’m hearing; there’s a feeling that we’re out of the woods… The probability still is at 10 per cent or less, and the conditions could still warrant such that we could have some serious concerns,” Kelly said.
South Kent Coun. Trevor Thompson raised concerns on behalf of his constituents that council had not done enough homework or preparation several weeks ago when they passed the first state of emergency, which gave residents the impression that the road would be permanently closed.
Thompson said council’s quick decision to close the road had many unintended consequences for residents, some of which “sold their homes for pennies on the dollar,” signed multi-month and yearlong leases, or spent thousands of dollars moving everything out of their house in preparation for what they perceived to be an indefinite closure.
“There was no expectation that the road would ever reopen. And here we are four weeks later, reopening the road. So how did we get from there to here?” Thompson asked municipal staff.
Kelly said staff and council had to act fast because if they delayed any longer, it was very likely the dike would have failed, citing the storm on March 29 as an example.
“I was out there on March 29. I’m telling you it is not safe out there. None of us feel safe out there when we see the kind of weather and the amount of flooding that occurred on March 29. We were very fortunate to finish that work. We had it finished on that Sunday, and as a result, we still have a dike in place. So that’s the other side of the coin. I certainly feel for all the people out there but we needed to act quickly, and we did, and we got it done. Just in time, I might add.”
Thompson said should a situation arise in the future, he hopes council would choose their words, such as “permanent,” more carefully.
“We should have done more homework and preplanning. We should actually listen to the residents as far as what we can actually accomplish,” he said. “I think it could hurt us the next time we say, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
South Kent Coun. Mary Clare Latimer said hindsight is 20/20 and she would have not done anything differently, as safety of residents is paramount.
“We need to do this now because if we dallied and gave residents more time, we would’ve had different results on March 29 and could’ve been talking about a lot of different things (at the April 6 council meeting) if we didn’t make that decision quickly. I think as a council we can only rely on our staff and professional opinions,” she said.
On May 4, council will review the Zuzek Report and have a broader conversation on how to fix Erie Shore Drive now that the dike is patched up.
Thompson said for now it still falls on the homeowners to maintain the berm and does not think that will change.
“But any solution we come up with has to include lakeside protection. We can’t just throw a band-aid on it. We need another berm or need shoreline protection.”