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‘Why was the road open?’: Family of N.S. flood victim demands answers, questions alert readiness

Click to play video: 'Team Rubicon returns to N.S. to assist with recovery following devastating floods in the region'
Team Rubicon returns to N.S. to assist with recovery following devastating floods in the region
Team Rubicon has returned to Nova Scotia to assist with the recovery from the devastating floods that occurred throughout the area in July. As Skye Bryden-Blom reports, the veteran-led organization has arrived in the province to offer recovery support three times in the past year. – Aug 9, 2023

It doesn’t make sense to Robie Holland that — as 250 millimetres of rain poured down in rural Nova Scotia — there was nothing to stop his father from travelling down a rapidly flooding road.

“Why was the road open? That’s the main question I keep coming back to …. It was flooding, and it wasn’t safe for people to be going down those roads. Why, if you’re out in the rural communities, is it a free-for-all?” he asked in an interview Friday.

“In my eyes, this was an avoidable situation.”

Nicholas Holland, 52, was among the four people who died in the historic, inland flooding on July 22, as torrential waters poured over rural Route 14 near Brooklyn, N.S. — northwest of Halifax — and swept two vehicles into a hayfield.

Robie Holland, 25, and his sister Sophie Holland, 23, said in an interview that while they’re grateful for the efforts of searchers that night, an independent probe is needed to answer questions about the response to the flooding disaster.

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Questions include why there was a delay after a request at 1:22 a.m. from the deputy chief of the Brooklyn volunteer fire department for a Ready Alert telling drivers to stay off the road. The alert was sent by provincial emergency management officials at 3:06 a.m., about half an hour after police say the taxi carrying Holland and three others went in the water.

“If they’re on the highway stranded and they’d had an alert saying, ‘Don’t go down to this area,’ they wouldn’t have gone there. They’re going to change their plans,” Robie Holland said.

Holland’s two children said they have learned from survivors’ accounts that after their father, a rock musician, finished playing a show in Windsor, N.S., in the early hours of July 22, he and his partner, Michelle Stewart, set off for their residence in Brooklyn. Their car, however, stalled in water pooled on the highway.

The Holland siblings say the two called a taxi and the driver continued towards their residence. As the cab was going around a corner on Route 14 it was swept into a hayfield by churning waters.

Robie Holland said his father — who had a damaged knee from an accident years earlier — still managed to kick the windows out of the car, allowing the four inside to escape the sinking vehicle. “He gave everyone a chance to survive,” he said.

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The son said his father’s girlfriend and the taxi driver managed to cling onto objects that prevented them from being swept away, but the driver’s daughter, 14-year-old Terri-Lynn Keddy, was carried by the current, as was Holland, who was not a strong swimmer

Searchers have since recovered the bodies of Holland and Keddy. Two six-year-old children, Colton Sisco and Natalie Harnish, died when another vehicle went off the road at about the same time.

Robie and Sophie Holland said it comforts them to recall their father’s efforts to help others and the dedication of searchers who spent days looking for the bodies. “I’m sad, but I’m thankful for them,” said Sophie.

But they say they remain troubled by the inability of the province and emergency management officials to react more quickly in rural areas.

Robie said that by 9 p.m. on the night of the torrential rainfall, he was being turned away by police on streets in Halifax, and this left him questioning why similar blockades weren’t in place in the Municipality of West Hants where his father died.

Meanwhile, Sophie Holland, a physiotherapist, said her generation is facing deepening challenges from climate change and she’s looking for better preparations from governments at all levels.

“(Political leaders) say ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims,’ but if you’d done something earlier, things might be different,” she said.

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Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, is among those calling for an independent review to examine shortcomings in Nova Scotia’s storm response. His centre gave Nova Scotia a grade of C in a 2019 study assessing provinces’ flooding preparedness.

It noted the province was the only one in Atlantic Canada that delegates responsibility for flood plain mapping to local governments, and that the province “does not provide incentives for the relocation of developments from flood plain zones.”

The provincial Department of Public Works said Friday it could not provide details about road closures during the storm. “Staff continue to work hard to restore access to damaged roads and bridges impacted by the extreme flooding,” spokesperson Gary Andrea said. “We will be reviewing measures taken during the July 21 weekend once our work is complete.”

Sophie and Robie Holland say they are looking for improvements to happen quickly.

“Are we prepared?” asked Sophie. “What changes are we going to make going forward? Obviously we weren’t prepared for this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 12, 2023.

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