Makeshift dam built to protect McConnell Engineering from torrent of water
By Neale McDevitt
In a stand that would have made Davy Crockett proud, a group of quick-thinking McGillians saved the McConnell Engineering Building – and possibly several other buildings – from extensive damage by staving off yesterday’s violent floodwaters using little more than garbage bags, recycling bins, Tupperware containers and the snow all around them.
When the water main broke at a construction site on Dr. Penfield Monday afternoon, it unleashed a torrent of water that cut a destructive path as it raced downhill into Montreal’s downtown core. Seeing that McConnell, located at the bottom of the steep incline of Tech Alley, was starting to take on water, a handful of engineering students and Mechanical Engineering professor Amar Sabih leapt into action.
“Use your brains and whatever you can get your hands on to solve a problem, this is engineering,” said Sabih, who directed his small band of volunteers to fill garbage bags with snow to build a barrier in front of McConnell. With no shovels handy, people filled the bags any way they could, including using their lunch containers and bare hands.
While the snow bags worked to a certain extent, it was clear that the barrier wouldn’t hold under the increasingly violent floodwaters. People brought wood from their labs and used it to help divert the flow through the Milton Gates and onto University where, it was hoped, the water would be swallowed up in the City’s sewer system.
But, with almost no materials at their disposal and in the face of a river that showed no sign of relenting, the undermanned crew seemed to be fighting a losing battle.
Cue the cavalry.
“Some students seemed happy just to stand on the side and video us and take pictures,” said Sabih, “but suddenly others showed up, put down their bags and jumped right in.”
Psychology undergrad André St-Jacques was one such passerby. “I was studying in Redpath when my friend showed up to let me know that there was ‘a river flowing down McTavish.’ I thought she was nuts, but sure enough, when I walked outside, I literally saw a river flowing down the street,” said St-Jacques. “I was wandering around with a friend taking pictures when we saw people building something to keep the water from getting into the [McConnell] Engineering building, so I decided to help out. It was sort of a domino effect. Watching other people hard at work gave me the incentive to step in as well.”
Passersby take the plunge
Sabih estimates that over the course of the next three hours, 25-30 students joined the effort, braving frigid temperatures to keep the water at bay.
“Getting people to help was somewhat difficult at first,” said Cyrille Goldstein, a Mechanical Engineering undergrad who was one of the first people on the scene, “but once it got going, it was amazing to see everyone work together. Once we figured out how to stop the water with snow and wood, and once grounds crew brought us some shovels, the dam took shape quickly.”
One of the keys to the crew’s success was organizing quickly and efficiently, with some members responsible for finding and carrying materials to help solidify the dam while others worked on the structure’s actual design. Sabih said the team was so focused that members of the planning team were literally standing knee-deep in the water with pencils and paper jotting down ideas and sketching plans. “We were soaked and cold but we discussed and we designed and people gave their opinions,” said Sabih. “In the end, we’d come up with another idea to apply to the problem at hand.”
Another of the original crew members, Mechanical Engineering undergrad Emmett Padway, said having engineers on the scene right away was a definite plus, as they were able to identify the problem and come up with a viable solution almost immediately. “Right away we organized a building process to create a dam that would smoothly guide the water out past the Milton Gates,” he said. “We wanted a smooth curve so that no force would be too concentrated in any point. [We weren’t] calculating the pressure across streamlines or anything like that; but the thought process and understanding what was going on conceptually definitely helped with decision-making.”
“Nobody did any math that I know of – what was important was our ‘engineering spirit’ of identifying problems and finding practical solutions,” said another Mechanical Engineering student, Nick Annejohn. “But it should be noted that not everyone working on the dam was in Engineering. We’re especially grateful to those students who helped out even though they don’t use the McConnell building on a regular basis.”
Colin Macdonald was one such student. “I was walking by heading towards the Milton Gates and saw a professor with a bunch of students trying to divert the flow away from McConnell. Since I was already stranded I figured I’d jump in,” said the Joint Honours in Italian and German Literature undergrad. “I’m not an engineer… but I’ve worked construction and I like building snow forts. So this was right up my alley.”
Over the course of the afternoon and early evening, the team continuously upgraded the barrier, adding recycling bins, plywood and heavy bags of salt to shore it up. When a pair of McGill trucks equipped with snowplows drove by, the team convinced them to park their trucks at angles so that the blades directed the water toward University Avenue.
Tyler Bains, an Arts and Science undergrad who spent most of his time on the crew doing grunt work like shoveling snow into gaps and carrying materials, said he was just happy to help out. “I was soaking wet and freezing, but the whole experience itself was amazing,” he said. “I would have sat in my room and done nothing in [residence], but rather found a much more worthy use of my time.”
Using materials the flood delivered
Once the main dam was solidified to the point where McConnell was no longer at risk of being flooded, the team expanded its operation by once again being creative and using the materials closest at hand. A small mountain of gravel had been washed downhill by the rushing water and the team used it to create a secondary barrier behind the main structure.
“At that point the most challenging thing was trying to prevent the water from pooling up too much behind the flood wall,” said Matthew Fong, a Mechanical Engineering undergrad who joined the team after hearing about the situation from another friend. “We ended up creating a wall [out of gravel] behind the wall that channeled water to a storm drain further down a bit.”
In the end, McConnell escaped almost entirely unscathed even though surrounding buildings like James Administration, Wong, Birks and Wilson Hall all experienced some flooding. Andy Kirk, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, said that without the intervention of this industrious crew, the damage could have been astronomical – and not just to McConnell.
“They had seen that there was a significant danger that the water was going to rush right into McConnell where, in the basement, we have some very high-tech equipment, a lot of research labs and an undergraduate project space. We could have lost equipment and, just as important, people’s work,” said Kirk. “One could argue that the water would have done damage to buildings further down like Burnside and Otto Maass if it had gone further down the campus.”
In a message to Sabih and the other Engineering students who helped out, Kirk wrote: “Your quick response brought out the best in what is expected of professional engineers: resourcefulness, skill, dedication and a true sense of responsibility. That last point is what impressed me the most. You knew what needed to be done and you did it. End of story.”