UPDATE: State of emergency forces partial evacuation of Erie Shore Drive

Winter 2020 at Erie Shore Drive. (Photo courtesy of Jason Homewood/ via Twitter)

Residents who live along the majority of Erie Shore Drive in Chatham-Kent are being asked to abandon their homes as the municipality works to mitigate the possibility of catastrophic flooding.

Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff declared a state of emergency for Erie Shore Drive and low lying areas on part of Erieau Road late Friday afternoon, due to the possible failure of a section of the Erie Shore Drive dike. Canniff stated that while the probability of a major breach is less than 50 per cent, the consequences could result in “significant harm” to residents should they remain in the area.

Area under a state of emergency. February 28, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Municipality of Chatham-Kent).

Based on a visual assessment, a stability analysis, lake level predictions, and historical storm frequency, administration has estimated that there is a five per cent to 40 per cent chance that the dike will fail, resulting in catastrophic flooding.  Should a major breach of the dike occur, it would take no more than six to eight hours for area roads to flood and prevent access to the Village of Erieau, effectively turning it into an island.

Erie Shore Drive has been closed, effectively immediately, with the exception of local traffic, and residents who live along at the addresses from 18416 to 17982 are advised to leave their homes. Municipal administration will be asking Chatham-Kent council to close Erie Shore Drive indefinitely beginning on March 9, from 18416 to the intersection of Erie Shore Drive and Erieau Road. However, a full closure could occur before then if the conditions warrant it, administration said.

Councillors will officially vote on the matter during their regular council meeting on March 2.

A total of 123 homes are located along Erie Shore Drive dike and approximately 43 are home to permanent residents. All residents will be unable to return to their homes once the road is closed indefinitely on March 9, to allow for construction and repairs to the dike. The municipality will also be unable to provide police, fire and EMS services to the affected area.

During a special council meeting held Friday evening, several devastated residents who live along Erie Shore Drive expressed frustration over the prospect of being unable to return to their homes. Many at the meeting said they have spent thousands of dollars maintaining their homes and not being able to maintain the flood barriers on their properties will result in untold damage.

“We take this very seriously. We want this to be a positive outcome in the end state, for all of us,” said Mayor Canniff during the meeting. “I know it’s very hard right now. I can’t really imagine what it would feel like [to be in this situation], I truly can’t. So we want to work hard towards making this a situation in the long run where we look back and say ‘we did it the right way,'”

South Kent Councillor Trevor Thompson also apologized to the Erie Shore Drive residents in attendance for their current plight.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this, I really am. I’m sorry we have to make these decisions,” he said. “It keeps me up at night and I know it keeps you up at night, and I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

The municipality’s Infrastructure and Engineering Services has been monitoring the situation along the road and dike since high water levels and lake overtopping were first witnessed in March 2016.  As the high water levels became more frequent, a state of emergency was also declared in the area back in August 2019.

Administration said the water levels in January and February were the highest they’ve been on record for this time of year.  The current water levels, as of Friday, are close to mirroring the levels that resulted in a state of emergency being declared over the summer.

As well, administration said there is a 50 per cent probability of above-normal rainfall during the months of March and April.

As part of its plan to mitigate the chances of dike failure, administration will ask be asking for council approval to raise the embankment grade to prevent uncontrolled overtopping. As well, it will be suggested that the concrete blocks that are currently in place at the south edge of the roadway be moved from addresses 17982 to 18416.  Administration told council that these measures need to be implemented as soon as possible, and they will take six to eight weeks to implement and will cost the municipality around $450,000.

After those measures are in place, administration is expected to present council with a second phase of long-term measures to consider. Unfortunately for residents of Erie Shore, administration has acknowledged that there is a real possibility some homeowners will be unable to return to their homes this year.

Those impacted by the state of emergency who need accommodations are encouraged to contact the Chatham-Kent Homeless Response Line at 519-354-6628.  Pet and Wildlife Rescue (PAWR) will also be assisting any residents who require emergency assistance with pet/animal care. PAWR can be reached at 226-996-9969 or 519-784-6146 after-hours.

Public information sessions will also be held on Tuesday at the Erieau Firehall to provide one-on-one question opportunities for residents. The first session will be held from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and another will be held from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.