Big problems, big solutions

In the final part of this series, we look at what rural communities need to recover from November's disaster, and what challenges stand in their way.

By Grace Kennedy | February 18, 2022 |5:00 am

Rural Fraser Valley faced disaster last November, when landslides and flooding threatened thousands across the valley. But those communities also faced significant challenges rebuilding after the storms, due to the complicated structure between municipal, regional, and provincial governments. In the final instalment of a three-part series, we look at what rural governments need to help their communities rebuild, and what challenges stand in their way.

Read part one of the series: Small towns, big disasters

Read part two of the series: Big disasters, small budgets

They fled their home during the November floods, escaping with their cat, three dogs, and some possessions in an RV. But in the nearly three months since Katrina and Don Page lost their home, the pair still don’t know what’s next for their future.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Katrina said. After living in their RV immediately after the disaster, they moved into a neighbour’s one-bedroom studio by early January. But they are still looking for a long-term home. “To find something comparable that’s in our budget, there’s nothing. We don’t know what we’re going to end up with out of the end of all this.”

The Pages are one of 10 households who lost their homes in the FVRD during the November disaster; in late December, the Pages and others met with representatives of the Fraser Valley Regional District, which acts as the municipal government for their area. The Pages went looking for answers. They left with frustration.

“I don’t know what the point of it was, because nobody knows anything,” Katrina said. They had asked about the FVRD’s plans for the land—or area that was formerly land near the Coquihalla River—and said they received little in the way of answers.

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People affected by flooding and landslides during the atmospheric rivers last year can ask the province to help cover 80% of the costs associated with rebuilding after the disaster. But, the province only offers a maximum of $300,000, a cap that has been in place for a quarter century.

In 1996, an average home in Hope cost about $135,000. (The Current determined that figure by averaging the list price of approximately 20 Hope homes advertised in newspapers throughout 1996.) Today, most homes in Hope are selling for more than $750,000. Much of that increase is attached to the property rather than the house itself—a problem for people like the Pages, who lost much of their property to the river.

In late January the FVRD asked EMBC to immediately increase the cap on its Disaster Financial Assistance applications.

“With a cap of $300,000 for DFA, it’s unlikely many of these homeowners will come close to addressing the catastrophic losses sustained by the atmospheric river event,” a staff report read.

In the Pages’ meeting with the FVRD, the couple was warned getting money from the province wouldn’t be easy.

“They told us right out that it was going to be an uphill battle,” Katrina said, adding that even if they did get market value for their property, it likely wouldn’t be enough to allow them to purchase a new home in the area.

“We absolutely love the neighbours here and everything,” she continued. “We hate to leave, but we’re not going to have a choice.”

As rural governments move from response to recovery, many will face a similar challenge: determining how to pry money from the provincial and federal governments now that the emergency is over. They will also face an even greater task: creating new systems to prevent similar disasters in the future.

BC Premier John Horgan and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met in person on Nov. 26 to discuss the future of BC’s emergency response after the disasters that month. 📸 Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Working together

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau landed in Abbotsford on Nov. 26, it marked a public shift in the province’s disaster response. Municipalities and provincial ministries were no longer tackling emergencies one at a time; instead, the federal government came in to commit their support to emergency response and future planning.

On that day, BC and Canada announced a new committee tasked with preventing and responding to future disasters. Made up of ministers in the provincial and federal governments, as well as one Indigenous representative, the 21-member committee would also help guide BC through the aftermath of its November emergencies.

Since the committee’s first meeting in mid-December, there have been two main announcements. The first: that the Red Cross would be implementing “personalized services” for flood victims, using donated funds and the matched contributions from the federal and provincial governments. The second was the creation of the Canada-BC Flood Recovery for Food Security Program, a $228 million flood recovery package aimed to help farmers pay for uninsurable costs from the flooding.

But little has been announced to help rural municipalities or those, like the Pages, whose property sustained major damages. The federal government transferred $5 billion to the province for its share of disaster financial assistance applications, as well as other costs related to climate disasters. But although the District of Hope said it needs $11 million to pay for flood protections, officials said in January that they had received “push back” from the province in getting funds. (Read more about that in our story here.)

Concerns from rural governments about the provincial-federal partnership are about more than just funding. The joint committee was intended to not only help BC immediately after the November disaster but also help establish a framework for how the rest of Canada can manage future ones.

There have been two meetings since the committee was established. The first, in mid-December, focused on BC’s immediate needs: interim housing, increasing the fuel supply, assessing damage to agriculture. (The need for Indigenous emergency management was also discussed.) A second meeting this month focused on “capacity building and enhancing resiliency for communities.” When a third meeting finally happens, it will include an update on the committee’s strategy and priorities for infrastructure in BC.

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But FVRD board chair Jason Lum warns that the discussions won’t solve rural communities’ problems if local officials aren’t at the table. The Fraser Valley Regional District has said it will put forward a request to the province to develop a special funding pool for regional districts, so they have money to pay for emergency work in situations like what happened in November. But these resolutions, brought forward through layers of local government discussion, take time. Time that may not be available if another disaster happens soon.

“I’ve mentioned it to whatever minister will listen to me,” he said. “This cabinet working group… was going to set the framework for how we respond to emergencies in the future. My feeling is that the framework will be incomplete if it doesn’t include the strong voice of local government.”

On the federal-provincial committee, there are no local representatives. There is Josie Osborne, however. Osborne, a former small town mayor herself, is BC’s minister of municipal affairs and one of the 21 representatives on the federal-provincial committee.

Part of Osborne’s role with the province is to help distribute grant funding from higher levels of government. In the committee, she says her role is to listen, and to pass along what she hears from municipal officials on the ground to the ministers at the table.

“Response is a quick situation,” she told The Current. “Moving forward, listening and being part of the longer term recovery is just as important.”

Although Osborne said she would ask municipalities for feedback on how to change funding resources, she also said local governments told her there was the “need to understand the tools and resources that are available to them.” The Current heard the opposite: that local governments know the tools at their disposal, but they aren’t enough.

“We’ve hit a roadblock with access to the emergency funding that was promised,” Hope Mayor Peter Robb said in early January. “It’s almost like we have to start the processes like we used to.

“Initially the money was there. Any support we needed was there. We got a lot done on the river,” he continued. “There’s still more to do. We need more funding and right now we’re at a standstill. I’m worried now about the freshet in the spring.”

Dikes across the Fraser Valley are in poor repair. Rural municipalities like the District of Kent worry they won’t have enough money to make the necessary upgrades. 📸 Eric Buermeyer/Shutterstock

The future of diking

Local governments are focused on dikes, and that’s where Premier John Horgan’s promise of a new system holds the most potential. Horgan had promised a change in how the province managed and funded structural flood protections. Downloading responsibility onto municipalities in the past was “a bad call,” he said. “There needs to be more than just those local dollars at play if we are going to protect communities going forward.”

In a press conference in late November, the same one where he and Trudeau announced the joint-committee, Horgan said the plan was to work with municipalities along the Fraser and to develop a new system with federal input.

In the months since, little has been said about a diking overhaul. Local governments are expected to raise the issue at September’s Union of BC Municipalities conference. It won’t be the first time: diking has been an annual focus at UBCM for more than a decade, with little result. In 2015, UBCM requested that the province take back control of local dikes. The province said no.

Five years later, another request was put forward to have rural governments and the province discuss the challenges of managing dikes under the current system. The Central Kootenay Regional District, which sponsored the request, had concerns around Dike Improvement Districts, which are used to manage local diking. There are several similar independent diking authorities in the Fraser Valley.

At that time, the province declared that local governments have “strong fiscal management frameworks and the potential for economies of scale in the acquisition of expertise” and having local governments responsible for financing dike projects to protect local development “encourages adequate prevention and mitigation measures.”

Horgan’s November statement took the opposite position. Despite that, municipalities like Hope say nothing has changed.

“You need their support and their help,” Robb said about the current system. “And yet, if you step out of line too far, sometimes you tend to go to the bottom of the line, I feel, when you’re working with these different agencies.”

“It’s been 10 years now that we’re all on our own,” he continued. “And we’re all scrambling for grants and fighting against each other for the same funding to improve our rivers and diking systems that are for our communities.”

It is a concern the Fraser Valley’s three rural governments all share, and none have a clear path forward.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger said about upgrading Kent’s local diking system. She noted that the dike along McDonald Road, which protects farmland in the eastern part of Agassiz, is experiencing major erosion and needs costly repairs.

“For us to raise $65,000 would be a one per cent tax increase,” she explained. “So when you start talking about these major expenses with upgrading of dikes, there’s just no way that we can afford it. So that whole picture has to be looked at in a comprehensive way.”

Shoring up dikes and preventing erosion can cost a lot more than $65,000; the City of Abbotsford has previously estimated that improving all its dikes would cost more than $400 million.

And it has to be done soon. A presentation to the District of Hope indicated that the Coquihalla’s flooding—which destroyed the Pages’ home—was nothing compared to what could have occurred. November’s flood on the Coquihalla River was a one-in-20-year event. A one-in-200 year flood would carry twice as much water downriver, and could turn much of the town into an island. Similar updated projections for the District of Kent show floodwaters from the Fraser swamping the Agassiz townsite and isolating Kent’s few hillside developments. Unincorporated rural areas are likely to fare little better.

“The thing that keeps me up the most at night these days is thinking about what happens in the spring, thinking about the freshet next year,” Lum said in December.

“We escaped from these events—I don’t want to say unscathed, because we weren’t. We were affected in a very serious way. But it could have definitely been way worse,” he continued. “And these events are only going to get worse. And so our response needs to get smarter. It needs to be faster, and it needs to be more proactive.”

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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