From Hope to Barrowtown: 11 questions to prepare for the next disaster

November’s storm-related disasters have left many questions to answer over the coming weeks, months, and years. Here are 11 to be considered

By Tyler Olsen | December 15, 2021 |6:15 am

As disasters go, November’s storm-caused floods and landslides are hardly mysteries.

We already know many of the basics that caused the cavalcade of emergencies from which this region is still recovering. We know, for instance, when officials were first warned the Sumas Dike couldn’t protect the prairie from the Nooksack River.

FROM DEC. 3: What the storms taught us about our valley—and ourselves

But as the landslides have been cleared and the floodwaters have receded, residents are facing the prospect of a region changed, and the disaster has also provoked new questions. Some of them will need answering soon. Others will take years or decades to find solutions. For some, the efforts to answer one question will provoke further ones. But here is what we want to know today, so we can be better prepared for tomorrow.

1. BC is familiar with The Big One: a massive earthquake that will eventually hit the southeast coast. But how long will it take for the people of the Fraser Valley to be protected against its own version of the Big One? A devastating Fraser River flood would be far more damaging than the Sumas Prairie flood, but work on a strategy began six years ago and is still years away from being complete. Those timelines—and the speed at which any plans may be implemented—depend on resources. While only hindsight will tell us when suitable protections are in place, it would be useful to know how many times we will need to roll the dice at freshet time before adequate dikes exist.

2. What action is needed to ensure our cities’ drainage systems can handle storms as large as those last month? November’s widespread flooding of basements across Abbotsford and Chilliwack revealed flaws in the city’s drainage systems. Any answer requires an understanding of how climate change is affecting our region and how it will do so in the future. That information is essential to know what current infrastructure is sufficient, and what needs to be upgraded. The answers will also need to consider the not-so-sexy issue of stormwater management, including detention ponds, the prevalence of parking lots, and other civic planning factors.

3. How can we better educate residents about this region’s complex, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing history? The extensive damage from the Nooksack flood was partly rooted in decisions made a century ago to drain Sumas Lake, as well as the region’s ancient geologic history. That knowledge isn’t just important on an academic level: it is vital for anyone who might be in the path of future floodwaters. An understanding of the truths behind those historic decisions is also needed to reconcile the existence of the communities in the valley with those peoples who have lived here for millenia.

4. Should the relationship between municipalities and the province change when it comes to emergency management? The provincial government said repeatedly that municipalities are best positioned to make local decisions in emergencies. But local knowledge doesn’t always translate into adequate resources to fund and implement needed actions. The Fraser Valley Regional District’s plea for more timely funding approvals also prompts questions about a government-to-government relationship that allowed a road and several homes to wash away.

5. What resources does Hope need to help people in need during emergencies? That community is at a pinch point of provincial highways and hundreds of stranded travellers were stuck there for days in November. Hospitals and other crucial supports receive funding based on the community’s residential populations and not those needing shelter and help during emergencies. Should that change?

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November demonstrated Highway 7's inadequacy to handle all necessary traffic during when Highway 1 is shut down for a significant amount of time. đź“· Canadian Forces
November demonstrated Highway 7’s inadequacy to handle all necessary traffic during when Highway 1 is shut down for a significant amount of time. đź“· Canadian Forces

6. Do we need to create permanent locations to house evacuated citizens for indefinite periods of time? Last month, many stranded people found themselves at Camp Hope, which was still housing Lytton residents evacuated from June’s fire. The answer will inevitably touch on whether BC needs to consider a more systematic approach to planning for those who cannot return to their homes for weeks or months.

7. When does Canada give up on the Americans’ willingness to prevent the Nooksack from spilling its banks? Because fixing the banks at Everson is the cheapest solution to stop Nooksack flooding from flowing north, Canadian politicians are likely to focus on that potential fix. That makes sense in the short-term, but if the Americans aren’t inclined to bolster the Nooksack’s banks, at what point does Abbotsford or the province begin to take its own action—be it by increasing the potential capacity of the Sumas River, raising the Sumas dikes or drilling a hole through Sumas Mountain to drain water into the Fraser?

8. How can the province’s vast communications bureaucracy better provide citizens with the information they need when they need it? November’s storms brought out a regiment of volunteers who used social media to organize a regional response effort, all of whom worked to coordinate mass volunteer efforts for everything from filling sandbags to evacuating livestock. Perhaps the province will look to them to answer this question.

9. Does there need to be a better alternate route between Chilliwack and Abbotsford? The prolonged closure of Highway 1 demonstrated the deep connections between the two cities. While two back routes exist—the Keith Wilson Road bridge, and south through Yarrow—both are susceptible to the same flood conditions that can close Highway 1. Highway 7 showed itself to be unable to handle commuter levels of traffic. Can another route be created (potentially in co-ordination with dike-raising efforts) to provide better protection against the consequences of Highway 1 being closed?

10. What needs to be done at Barrowtown Pump Station to better protect against rising floodwaters? It shouldn’t have taken an army of independent volunteers to save the station and prevent Highway 1 from being closed for months. Better flood-proofing is clearly needed for infrastructure around the region, but Barrowtown’s importance in fighting gravity and keeping the highway open puts it near the top of the list.

11. Finally: How much will all this cost—and are residents willing to pay now to prevent more costs down the line? The politicians, bureaucrats and experts aren’t the only ones who need to come up with some answers. It’s easier to avert disaster than clean up from one one. But, as we have seen through everything from flooding to climate change to forest management, people and governments are averse to paying more now. Will that ever change?

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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