B.C. flood recovery tempered by fears of new climate disasters looming on horizon

VICTORIA — When a dike was breached and floodwaters started to flow across British Columbia's Sumas Prairie a year ago, poultry farmer Corry Spitters said all he could do was let nature take its course.

A feeling of helplessness gripped him as the encroaching water methodically engulfed his farm's 21 barns, and 200,000 of his chickens drowned, he said.

"You stand there and Mother Nature takes control," said Spitters, 67. "What can you do? The water comes in and there's nothing you can do."

All he could think about as rising water claimed his chickens was: "Thank God we're not drowning (too)," he said in an interview.

The record rains brought by an atmospheric river last November swamped southwest B.C., inundated farmland, washed out major highways and railways and forced thousands to flee.

Five people died in what the Insurance Bureau of Canada ranks as B.C.'s most costly weather event, with insured losses of $675 million.

A year after the disaster, provincial officials spent the past week touting rebuilding and recovery. The government said permanent repairs to the dikes were expected to be complete by next month, most dairy and poultry farms were "back to normal", and Highway 8 had reopened to the public after being washed out in 25 places.

But any sense of optimism is tempered by an awareness from climate experts and residents alike that the next big storm could come sooner rather than later.

Climate scientist Francis Zwiers, director of the University of Victoria's Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium, said the group produced a study this year that concluded human-induced climate change had increased the probability of such an event by up to 50 per cent.

"The probability of what we thought historically were high numbers has been increased because of human influence on the climate system," he said in an interview.

The scale of last November's rainfall is told in the records shattered in almost 20 B.C. communities and locations.

From the morning of Saturday, Nov. 13, to the following Monday afternoon, 252 mm fell at the Coquihalla Highway Summit. In Hope, 225 mm fell, and in Agassiz, 208 mm.

Zwiers said the rains launched floods so severe that water level gauges in some locations were damaged or unreadable.

"It's really hard to get reliable answers out of the gauges because typically when there's a heavy rainfall event, the gauge becomes inaccurate," he said in an interview. "It, in essence, becomes damaged by the extreme stream flow that's produced."

At one point in mid-November, all major transportation links out of Vancouver to B.C.'s Interior and east to Alberta were cut by landslides or washouts, including the Trans-Canada Highway, Coquihalla Highway, Highway 3, Highway 99 and rail lines.

Zwiers told a Senate committee reviewing the B.C. floods last June, that while such a storm was previously regarded as a once-in-50-years, or 100 years, event, precipitation of such magnitude was more likely a once-in-12-years event.

Zwiers said an atmospheric river is categorized as a flow of water vapour across the Pacific that originates in the subtropics.

"The particular atmospheric river that occurred was aligned with the Fraser Valley in a way that allowed moisture to penetrate relatively deeply into southwestern B.C.," he said.

Spitters, whose Oranya Farms at Abbotsford is Canada's largest organic chicken producer, said that in addition to drowning his flock, the flooding damaged and destroyed farm equipment.

"The birds alone were upwards of $2 million, and beyond that we had equipment damage and repairs and clean up that totalled in excess of $1 million," he said. "We had a total loss of probably $3.3 to $3.4 million."

But Spitters said he was back shipping between 40,000 to 60,000 organic chicken products to customers in Western Canada about one month after the storm.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said last week it had been an emotional year for many B.C. farmers, but most dairy and poultry farmers were back to normal, and most field crops had been planted as usual.

The Sumas Prairie dike breach saw 1,100 farms placed under evacuation order or alert, with 150 square kilometres of farmland swamped, resulting in the deaths of 630,000 chickens, 420 cattle and 12,000 hogs, she said.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said last week that repairs to the Sumas Dike were expected to be complete by the end of November, with 500 debris sites cleared. He said the province had approved more than $41 million in funding to repair and restore sites along waterways in the Fraser Valley, while a total $24.6 million in disaster financial assistance payments had been made.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming meanwhile hailed the work of repair crews to reopen Highway 8, which winds along the Nicola River between Merritt and Spences Bridge. He called the repairs an "important milestone."

Such efforts aren't erasing concerns about a repeat of the disaster, however.

At Hope, about 150 kilometres east of Vancouver, Dewan Davesar runs the Hope Pizza Place restaurant with wife Rupinder. They were widely praised for providing free hot food for stranded travellers last year.

"I don't actually know why I did that," Davesar said in an interview. "It's a signal from God. I think God gave me that signal."

The family brought in a generator after the restaurant lost power and kept handing out free pizza, garlic bread and tea for days, he said.

"They tried to give me money but I said, 'No, I don't need money on these days,'" said Davesar.

Davesar said that in the past year he's purchased extra coolers and now keeps a generator at the restaurant.

He's getting ready for the next storm.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 14, 2022.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press