B.C. officials should have issued warning about weather: First Nations leader

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VICTORIA — The British Columbia government didn't warn residents in flood-prone areas about the potential devastation of torrential rain that left hundreds of motorists stranded on severed highways hit by mudslides and caused at least four deaths, a First Nations leader says.

Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, said the province could have acted faster after a heat dome this summer claimed nearly 600 lives and a wildfire destroyed much of the town of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon.

"This year alone there's an expectation that everybody should just be ready by now," Teegee said in an interview on Monday. "First Nations communities are already at a deficit, even before a wildfire, even before a flood."

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the province is working with First Nations to involve them and meet their needs.

"One of the things that we obviously want to do when this event is over is to look at where there were gaps and make sure that we address those gaps," he told a news conference.

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for B.C.'s north coast. Rain was expected to move south on Monday after a so-called atmospheric river that dumped unprecedented amounts of rain in southwestern B.C.

Armel Castellan, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said snowmelt may bring about 40 to 70 millimetres of rain in the Fraser Valley. Upwards of 100 millimetres could potentially fall in the North Shore mountains around Howe Sound.

Another atmospheric river is expected on Saturday, he said.

"We're not looking at necessarily the same copious amounts as we saw two weekends ago, but we are looking at a very strong signal through the weekend and into next week. We continue to have active storms," Castellan said. "So I would just caution that we are dealing with very active weather for the foreseeable future, at least as far as the forecast is available."

Teegee said several First Nations communities have already been cut off by flooded roads and they're waiting for resources to be helicoptered to them, possibly before winter storms that could affect their power supply.

About 85 per cent of First Nations live in rural areas, said Teegee.

The First Nations' Emergency Services Society works with Emergency Management BC in delivering services, but Teegee said its funding isn't ongoing and resources like food, water and fuel have taken too long to arrive due to "a bureaucratic nightmare" like filling out forms when communities have been evacuated.

"That has to fundamentally change," he said.

Farnworth said over 100 Indigenous and First Nations communities were affected by the unprecedented flooding and landslides in southwestern B.C. He said the province has ensured culturally appropriate services are being provided by First Nations representatives at a reception centre in Kamloops, for example.

"Emergency Management BC is working closely with the First Nations Health Authority and the First Nations Emergency Services Society to support hard-hit communities," Farnworth said.

Patty Hajdu, the federal minister of Indigenous services, announced $4.4 million in funding Monday for the First Nations Emergency Services Society in B.C. to support those affected by flooding.

"The loss of life, homes, infrastructure, property, and livelihoods, as well as the ongoing disruption to people's lives is devastating," Hajdu said in a written statement.

More Canadian Forces troops arrived in the province over the weekend to help farmers in the Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford save livestock and lend a hand in sandbagging efforts.

Farnworth said the province is working with the federal government to waive a one-week waiting period for people to qualify for employment insurance.

The B.C. government declared a state of emergency last week and issued an order limiting fuel purchases to 30 litres per visit to a gas station to preserve supplies for commercial vehicles delivering essential goods. It also limited access to some highways for essential travel only.

Highway maintenance worker Ron Hagen of Merritt has viewed the damage caused by the flooding and mudslides after he was among 7,000 people who were forced from their homes a week ago when the Coldwater River overflowed its banks.

"(On) one of the main roads the water just rushed down there and there is no road left. It just took the asphalt and moved the asphalt wherever it wanted and created this crater and washed everything away," said Hagen, who has continued on the job as an essential worker.

"A lot of homes along the river, their basements were full and (water) was going up to the second floor. It was that deep."

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver, with files from Bill Graveland in Kamloops and Brieanna Charlebois in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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