Small towns, big disasters

In the first of a three part series, we look at how rural communities weathered the November disaster, and what unique challenges residents and governments in those areas face.

By Grace Kennedy | January 31, 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 first of a three-part series, we look at how rural communities responded to November’s disaster, and some of the unique challenges their residents faced.

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

Read part three of the series here: Big problems, big solutions.

On Nov. 28, Katrina and Don Page watched their home fall into the Coquihalla River. They were two days shy of celebrating seven years in their home. It was one day before Don’s birthday. They had finally finished renovating and were ready to start landscaping the yard. They had a small orchard, a two-person ATV for their grandkids to bomb around in, a freezer full of homegrown vegetables, and a firepit by the water where they would sit and watch the evening pass.

The river washed it all away.

The Pages had known it would happen. Nearly two weeks earlier, their neighbour, Graham Zillwood, had lost his home on Othello Road on the second day of the November storms. Zillwood escaped with his dog, his cat, and the clothes on his back. The Pages were determined the same wouldn’t happen to them.

“We were trying to contact anybody to help us save our home,” Katrina said. After her neighbour’s home was destroyed, she contacted Enbridge, a natural gas company that had a line running through her property. An employee drove out and dumped riprap where the river was encroaching on the road and the property, but couldn’t do more in case it damaged the pipeline. (Riprap is gravel or other material used to protect shorelines against erosion.)

“I owned the property but they seemed to be in control” of deciding how to protect it, Don said. For 13 days, the couple continued to call everyone they could think of to save their home, including Dennis Adamson, the Pages’ elected representative with the Fraser Valley Regional District.

“We were begging him, ‘You guys have to do something to save our home,’” Katrina said. “They did absolutely nothing. They had plenty of time to actually get an excavator in there and do something, and nobody did anything.”

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Although it may have looked like nothing to the Pages, the FVRD said it was doing something. It was working to prove it needed funding from the provincial government to pay for shoreline protection to hopefully stop the river from consuming Othello Road. On Nov. 19, geotechnical engineers visited the area to complete a report they hoped would prove to the province that the FVRD needed $1.5 million in funding. Five days later, on Nov. 24, the report was sent away to EMBC for approval. That same day, the BC government warned residents to prepare for a series of storms to hit BC.

Days passed. The Pages and others along Othello Road remained on evacuation alert. The Coquihalla River continued to eat away at their property line. The storms approached.

On the evening of Nov. 27, neighbours drove through the storm to help the couple grab what they could from the house. The couple had put some things aside already, but others grabbed whatever they could find, including the cat litter box. The Pages left with their three dogs and cat in the RV, and parked in a neighbour’s driveway further away from the river.

The next day, their home was gone.

“We never really thought it was going to happen,” Katrina said four days later. “We were under the impression that we were going to get help with the riprap and all that, and save our home.”

Hours after the home was gone, the FVRD issued an evacuation order for the Pages’ property and others. The next day, Emergency Management BC gave verbal approval for the FVRD to start the $1.5 million project.

“They rerouted that river in half a day, and that’s what we were begging for for 13 days,” Katrina said. Crews were at the neighbour’s place bulking up the shoreline after the Pages’ home had washed away. “They ran down and put a bandaid on the neighbour’s place,” Don said.

Would faster funding approval have saved Katrina and Don’s home? There’s no way to know for sure. But the factors that allowed the Pages’ home to crumble into the river—the confusion about who should save the property, the delayed evacuation orders, and a bureaucratic funding process—point to an even bigger challenge for rural Fraser Valley residents: how to get the help you need when you live in a small town.

The Fraser Valley’s rural communities

Nearly all of the Fraser Valley’s residents live in its urban centres, located on just 10% of its land. The less populated areas are often crisscrossed with creeks, forests, lakes, and rivers, making it more likely those areas will face landslides and flooding in a disaster like what happened last November. 📸 Dru!/Flickr

In the Fraser Valley, as The Current defines it, there are nine places you can live: the Langleys, Abbotsford, Mission, Chilliwack, Kent, Harrison, Hope, and the FVRD. In most of these places, you’ll be sharing your square kilometre with between 180 and 430 other people. But not all.

In Hope there are just under 170 people for every square kilometre in the district. In Kent, it’s around 40 people per square kilometre. And in the Fraser Valley Regional District’s electoral areas, which make up nearly 90% of the valley’s entire landmass, there are less than two people for every square kilometre. It’s great if you want your space. But it can be a challenge in a disaster.

Hope learned that all too well. When November’s storm first stalled over the Fraser Valley on Nov. 14, building swollen rivers that ate away roads and landslides that buried highways, Hope bore the brunt of it.

Throughout Sunday, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure was shutting down highways. The first closures happened in the afternoon: first Highway 1, between Hope and Boston Bar was closed; then parts of the Coquihalla were washed away south of Merritt; then mudslides closed Highway 1 between Hope and Chilliwack. But Hope still had two connections to the Lower Mainland and the Interior at 4pm, and travellers were inching their way down those routes as the day progressed.

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Then, sometime between the late afternoon and early evening, the power flickered off, leaving more than 5,000 in a town of nearly 7,000 in the dark. Some telephone connections were disconnected at the same time: Hope’s access to the outside world was nearly severed. Then, two hours later, two mudslides tore across Highway 7, trapping nearly 300 people between the slides. Another mudslide closed Highway 3 an hour before midnight.

After the power was cut, few knew what was happening on nearby highways or that more than a thousand stranded travellers were making their way toward Hope, the only town they could get to.

“The communication with the province was not good,” Hope mayor Peter Robb remembered. “We did not know the condition of [Highway] 7, 1, and 5… and that was part of the problem. All of a sudden they’re turning around and releasing all of these people into our community.”

Robb said it wasn’t just the province’s fault—getting a timely message through official channels without power, telephones, and roads is no easy feat—and the community rallied to ensure everyone who was stranded was fed and warm. An Emergency Operations Centre, which was kicked into action by volunteers knocking on each other’s doors, moved its base to the hospital, which had one of the few generators in the town.

“There were a lot of things that were done right, and a lot of things we need to learn from,” Robb said.

Challenges in manpower

The Fraser Valley Regional District’s Emergency Operations Centre had a staff of 30 at its height, and managed evacuation orders and alerts for approximately 12,000 square kilometres. 📸 Theresa Alexander/FVRD

During the November landslides and flooding, which stretched through to mid-December, more than 9,000 Fraser Valley residents were affected by over 30 evacuation orders. Some of the most substantial were in Abbotsford, where more than 3,000 Sumas Prairie residents were displaced by floodwaters from the Nooksack River. But the bulk of the evacuations actually took place in the Fraser Valley’s small towns and outlying areas: 27 alerts and orders were issued in the Fraser Valley Regional District alone, impacting half of all the residents in the district’s electoral areas.

One of those evacuation orders affected the extended family of FVRD board chair Jason Lum, who spoke with The Current in mid-December. At that time, Lum had just signed several new evacuation orders for the Chilliwack River Valley and the Fraser Canyon. Lum’s family had to hike out onto the forest service roads near their home—which were also closed due to floods and landslides—to evacuate, after a river washed away their road access. Similar scenes took place in almost every unincorporated part of the Fraser Valley Regional District, Lum said.

“It’s hard to have the level of intel across the whole region, daily, on each possible emergency situation,” Lum said. Some residents evacuated before being ordered to do so, which added another level of complexity to the district’s emergency operations. “We only have so many staffing resources.”

Lum was alluding to the relatively small number of people the FVRD could bring in to support its emergency response—especially compared to governments serving residents in cities. The Fraser Valley Regional District’s Emergency Operations Centre was operating with 30 staff—roughly a third of the FVRD’s total staff—and had daily calls with the district’s five fire chiefs. (It has continued to operate throughout December and January: the Othello Road evacuation order was just rescinded on Jan. 18.) The Abbotsford EOC, on the other hand, had nearly 400 city staff working to manage its disasters. That figure was four times the number of the FVRD’s total staff.

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Of course, small doesn’t necessarily mean worse. In the District of Kent, local firefighters were at the scene of the Highway 7 slide within minutes of it coming down, bringing four fire engines with them. The crew liaised with emergency dispatchers elsewhere to try and get the people trapped in their vehicles to safety: Hope search and rescue volunteers worked from the eastern side of the slide, while Seabird Island firefighters assisted Agassiz on the western side.

“When you have a municipality dealing with [an emergency], your boots are on the ground really quick. And that’s the upside of municipalities being in charge,” Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger said. The District of Kent’s EOC started up on Sunday night (Nov. 14), and saw many members of the region’s fire department as well as municipal staff working long hours to manage Kent’s local disasters. “These guys were ready 24 hours a day, especially in the beginning.”

Unfortunately, a second and third slide on the highway just hours after the first meant local crews had to evacuate themselves, and a request was sent in to EMBC for the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue team to come in from Vancouver. It took approximately seven hours for people to be rescued from the slide debris and brought to Chilliwack Hospital in the early hours of Monday morning.

It’s proof that municipalities can’t do everything on their own. And Pranger said local governments need provincial support, particularly when it comes to emergency funding. And they need the province to trust that the municipalities won’t make frivolous decisions.

But as November’s disaster and its bureaucratic aftermath showed, that’s not always what happens.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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