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Historic floods ‘hammered’ British Columbia’s trucking industry

Road, rail damage could take until 2023 to fully repair

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Months of virtually never-ending storms slammed the Pacific Northwest last fall, leading to record rainfall, floods, mudslides and major supply chain issues.

The hardest-hit areas were in southern British Columbia, Canada, a region typically teeming with freight movement.

Related: Record fall rain slams Pacific Northwest

“All of southern BC was severely impacted. The Fraser Valley was flooded, some areas for weeks,” Dave Earle, president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association (BCTA), said in an email to FreightWaves. “Mudslides destroyed infrastructure north and south of the Fraser River. Both major rail lines were severed in multiple locations.”

As November came to a close, Vancouver had its wettest fall (September through November) on record, with 20.88 inches, more than twice its average for the season. Abbotsford reported a whopping 32.94 inches of fall precipitation and was badly damaged. The Fraser River and many of its tributaries overflowed quickly, and excess runoff kept flowing, even on intermittent drier days.

Earle said that smaller rail lines were severed in the Fraser Valley. Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, was destroyed in several locations throughout the Fraser Canyon and nearby areas. Highway 8 between the Fraser Canyon and Merritt was largely erased, while multiple structures were destroyed on Highway 5. Highway 99 was wiped out about 60 miles north of Whistler.

Earle couldn’t put a dollar figure on how much the trucking industry has been losing per day in British Columbia, or Canada as a whole, but the flooding’s impacts have been rippling through the entire business.

“Every sector of the trucking industry has been hammered, but none more than carriers who could not pivot due to specialized equipment,” Earle explained. “In the early days [of the floods], those companies specializing in moving dimensional lumber were seriously impacted, but those circumstances changed pretty quickly as the flow of all goods was eventually deemed essential.”

One of those companies was Sutherland Group Enterprises, which owns Sutco Transportation Specialists. Sutco is a full-solution provider for the forestry industry consisting of 100 trucks, 120 drivers and 160 total team members who work predominantly in southern British Columbia and just across the border in the U.S.

President Doug Sutherland told FreightWaves that this flooding was the worst weather event to impact his family’s 26-year-old-business.

“What it’s done with these increased cycle times, which impact the amount of legal hours we can run, we’ve had to drop some of the backhaul scenarios just to make sure we can complete the key headhaul freight,” Sutherland said.

When the fooding was at its worst in late November and early December, traffic was directed to Highway 3, which suffered the least amount of damage. However, that route couldn’t handle the burden of the extra volume. Round trips that traditionally took Sutco drivers eight hours to complete took twice as long once they were able to get back on the roads.

Trip times gradually decreased to 13 hours as repairs were completed in some places but were still taking 10 to 11 hours as of mid-January.

“We’ve been able to adjust to it, and I think the industry as a whole has,” Sutherland said.

Flooding damaged one of Sutherland’s terminals in Chilliwack, where three of its drivers were stranded for a few days. Fortunately, they had access to food and water and had sleepers in their trucks. One team member had to evacuate his home in Merritt and stayed in a hotel for a while.

Sutco suffered an enormous fiscal impact early on when its trucks couldn’t run for a week and a half but it still had to pay drivers. Sutherland estimated his losses as of mid-January have reached in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The company is taking most of those losses on the chin, dipping into reserve funds.

“Your valuation’s going down. You’re dipping into that money that was supposed to be used for capital infrastructure and for other things,” Sutherland said.

Sutco has been as transparent as possible with its customers.

“Now that we’re running, but at a slower pace, it’s all quantifiable through e-logs. You can show the customer exactly what that corridor is taking,” Sutherland explained. “The customer understands. They still need their freight to move, and anyone that can’t pay it, that freight’s not moving.”

Workers deploy a temporary Acrow bridge following November flooding on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) at the Jackass Mountain washout site. (Photo: British Columbia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure)

The BCTA has been following suit, synthesizing and relaying as much information as possible along the way to its member carriers.

For example, Earle said the in-transit exemptions for running through the U.S. were put in place by a number of agencies. Many requirements were suspended, which was a welcome step. However, BCTA members that didn’t run in the U.S. pre-disaster had no idea what applied to them and what did not.

“A bit more than two weeks after the disaster we gathered representatives from FMCSA, the Insurance Corporation of BC, the Ministry of Finance and Pacific Customs Brokers for a webinar on what the rules were/are/are going to be,” Earle recalled. “We had nearly 200 attendees.”

Repairs are ongoing on all damaged highways and railroad tracks, and no one knows when the last of them will be back up and running. Earle said this may take until 2023 in some areas, despite the herculean efforts he’s seen so far by road crews.

Related: Port of Vancouver ship queue tops 50 as rail woes persist

Sutherland thinks the scariest part of the situation is potential societal impacts down the pike when issues of COVID and inflation are added in.

“Taking a critical shipping lane in British Columbia and having a catastrophic event like this [flooding] when we’re already at high inflation, I’m worried about the impacts on the end user,” Sutherland said.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.