‘People are not going to be okay for a very long time’: the mental toll of the Fraser Valley floods

It has been nine months since American floodwaters inundated Sumas Prairie. But for many residents, the mental health challenges haven't gone away.

By Grace Kennedy | August 19, 2022 |5:00 am

It had been six months to the day when Melody and Trevor finally returned home. But it didn’t feel quite like home.

“It’s weird to find yourself displaced and then back again,” Melody said in May, sitting down in the living room of her Sumas Prairie home. “It’s kind of like being united with a younger version of yourself… [But] that past version was a little bit more carefree.”

The couple had been evacuated from their house on Sumas Prairie when water from the Nooksack River overflowed north into Canada and broke through the Sumas dike in November of last year. Grabbing their baby, their dog, and a few pre-packed bags, the couple fled through flooded-soaked roads to Chilliwack.

Now, they are back.

But many others are still waiting to return to their damaged homes on Sumas Prairie. Some, largely renters, have opted to leave the area entirely. And all are likely facing mental health challenges from the disaster.

It’s a problem some believe will only get worse.

“The coming decades bring increased risk for things like floods and fires… and the time between disastrous events will come shorter,” said Dr. Kiffer Card, a social ecologist at SFU who has studied how climate change is affecting people’s mental health.

“This puts stress and pressure on our emergency response systems, our governance and municipal systems, and… individual experiences with distress that arise from not just the events themselves, but all that context around it.”

Story continues below.

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The flood

*Melody and Trevor requested The Current use their first names only for privacy reasons.

Melody was putting her infant daughter to sleep in the upstairs bedroom, a glass of water on the table by the rocking chair. She was worried.

It had been raining for nearly three days, and the banks of the Nooksack River had burst that morning, sending water north through Whatcom County. Residents south of the border, in Sumas, Wash., had spent the previous day filling sandbags. But in Canada, there was little discussion about the threat posed by the Nooksack, and no warnings from government as Monday dawned.

Melody’s home—which she shared with her parents, her daughter, and her husband Trevor—was located near the bottom of what had once been the bed of Sumas Lake. The couple had lived in Sumas Prairie for three years, and they had known about the potential for flooding when they arrived. But, Melody said, they had been able to put those fears aside.

“It’s almost like it was too big to fail,” she said. “There’s so much agriculture out here, I thought this would get prioritized… It’s so valuable out here that the government will do what needs to be done to protect the area.”

Sitting in her daughter’s room on Monday, Nov. 15, she suddenly wasn’t so sure. Floodwaters had forced the evacuation of the western part of Sumas Prairie just after noon, and that evening residents of the eastern part of the prairie were put on evacuation alert.

Trevor was downstairs, packing the emergency bags Melody had asked him to get ready. Naturally more laid-back than his wife, he hadn’t felt the same rush of anxiety about the rising waters in the western part of the prairie. But they both agreed that if an evacuation order came, it was because the dike had breached. So he packed the bags, grabbing some cans of beans, a loaf of homemade bread, a few days worth of clothing, some dog food, and a few blankets.

“I thought we would be gone for a couple of days, maybe,” he remembered later. “The thought to pack more than that didn’t really cross my mind.”

The couple slept fitfully that night, waking up to check Twitter, or popping outside to check the water levels in nearby ditches. Then, early the next morning, Trevor saw the notification. The City of Abbotsford had expanded the evacuation order to include the former Sumas Lake basin. They turned off the breaker on their house, grabbed their daughter and their dog, and headed out to the car.

Police were going door-to-door delivering evacuation notices. The couple called their neighbour, who said he was going to stay behind. He had a nursery business he was hoping to protect.

They said goodbye, and began driving away.

“It sounds really dramatic to say looking back, but I was worried for our lives,” Melody said. “I was worried about being trapped in the vehicle [with my daughter] and not being able to get to her in her car seat.”

Melody held her daughter on her lap as they drove through the backroads, eventually arriving at the emergency support services centre at Chilliwack Secondary.

A few kilometres away in Yarrow, Victoria Kuit was waking up after a full day hosting a birthday party for her 16-year-old daughter. Her parents had travelled down from Merritt for the party, barely making it down the Coquihalla before it was closed by landslides and washouts. During the day, torrential rain had filled a depression by the tree in Victoria’s front lawn; during the party her nephew had kayaked in the new pond, to the amusement of the family.

“We thought that was super funny,” Victoria remembered. “And then all of a sudden, the funny went to terror because we were being evacuated.”

Only a few hours after Abbotsford had ordered the evacuation of Sumas Prairie, the City of Chilliwack issued an evacuation order for Yarrow, part of which is also on the Sumas Lake bed. Victoria froze. She stood in her kitchen wondering where she should go, and what she should pack.

In the end, she grabbed pictures and some personal documents, medication, a suitcase of clothes, and some food. Then, she drove up with her daughter to a friend’s house in Chilliwack’s Promontory neighbourhood.

That Tuesday night, water poured through a hole in the Sumas Dike, refilling Sumas Lake. Abbotsford issued a dire warning that the Barrowtown Pump Station was in imminent danger of collapse and that those remaining in Sumas Prairie were in immediate peril. At Barrowtown, volunteers from Chilliwack formed a human chain of sandbaggers and built a temporary wall to protect the pump station’s vital electrical components from the encroaching water.

It worked. The Barrowtown Pump Station was saved, and by late afternoon on Nov. 17, most of Yarrow could return home. But Melody, Trevor, and the rest of Sumas Prairie weren’t so lucky.

The first few days

The evacuation order on Sumas Prairie would last more than two weeks, with some residents not allowed to return home for nearly a month. But that didn’t mean everyone stayed away.

Farmers, particularly members of the dairy industry, returned almost immediately to care for and potentially rescue their livestock. (Some remained even while the Barrowtown Pump Station was under threat.) Victoria and other Yarrow residents returned to their homes to assess any potential damage. And some locals began to look at new ways they could help people who had been displaced from their homes.

Victoria wanted to join them. She had friends who had helped move cattle, and others who had assisted with sandbagging. She couldn’t do either. But across the eastern Fraser Valley, a variety of “hubs” had begun to emerge, all focused on helping people get warm meals and necessary supplies. That was something she could do.

Victoria Kuit, standing in one of the first iterations of the Yarrow Food Hub. 📸 Submitted

Joining up with friends who started a small “Food for Farmers” stand on the side of No. 3 Road, Kuit turned her home into the Yarrow Food Hub. The first night she was back, she was already organizing soup and coffee for people working late into the night on Sumas Prairie farms.

The reason was simple: “If there’s a need, we should fill it.”

The food hub soon became larger than Victoria. Within 24 hours, work gear and rain boots were added to the roster for people in need—and later, respirators and dehumidifiers. Eventually, an entire barn on Victoria’s property was filled with loaned and donated tools.

“In the beginning, because everyone was in fight-or-flight mode, I didn’t even know the name of half the people that came through here,” Victoria remembered.

For its first two months, the Yarrow Food Hub was a 24/7 operation, with Victoria sleeping around three hours a night between organizing volunteers and managing donations. Hundreds of people came through her driveway each day. Crock pots of food left full and returned empty.

“The adrenaline kept me focused,” Victoria said. “But I think what kept me going was that I didn’t see the devastation for so long. So I could separate it.”

Many Sumas Prairie homes had to be stripped to the studs after November's flooding. Some owners are now waiting for financial assistance from the province before they can finish repairing their homes. 📸 Helping Sumas Prairie Farmers - Flood Support/Facebook
Many Sumas Prairie homes had to be stripped to the studs after November’s flooding. 📸 Helping Sumas Prairie Farmers – Flood Support/Facebook

The damage

Two days after they had been evacuated, Melody and Trevor sat in Chilliwack’s Old Yale Brewing, waiting for lunch. And waiting for their trapped cat, James.

A man had their house key, floating in a boat on what was now Sumas Lake. He boated above flooded streets and arrived at their two-storey house. The bottom half was submerged in water; he got the cat by breaking the glass on a door.

Then he called Melody.

“That was a bad moment,” Trevor remembered, speaking to The Current in early December. Until that point, the couple had seen only a few images of their home. It was only after their cat was rescued that they realized how high the water was.

“You have this hope, when you don’t know,” he said. “And then you get the reality of the phone call, and it sucks.”

“I just want to know what we can salvage and what’s toast,” he added at the time. “I’m eager to go there and sort that stuff out. But, I mean, it’s going to suck. It’s going to be shitty.”

Melody agreed—but she had her own concerns as well.

“My worry is that it’s going to look pretty good,” she said. “I’m almost worried everyone’s going to be like, ‘Alright, so you’re back to live there soon.’ And I just don’t feel ready to go back.”

The trauma

In a way, the first trip back wasn’t as traumatic as Melody had feared. Her parents—who had been on vacation when the flooding happened—had returned and stripped out most of the downstairs before the young family saw their home. But it still wasn’t a pretty picture.

The downstairs, which had been underwater for weeks, was gutted to the studs. There were baby toys strewn around the yard alongside dead fish and a dead rabbit that had tried to get inside the house to shelter. The downstairs was worse than Melody thought it would be. But it wasn’t the most emotional part.

“The hardest part for me was seeing the upstairs,” she said. “It was like a frozen moment in time. The glass of water that you set by your rocking chair that you thought you were just using… It looks otherwise normal except for the fact that everything downstairs was under water.”

The anxiety that came with seeing the damaged house for the first time was completely reasonable, SFU professor Kiffer Card told The Current. Card is a health science expert looking at climate anxiety, a relatively new field of research devoted to helping people handle concerns around climate change and the increasingly frequent disasters it is bringing.

Natural disasters “take a real psychological toll that really strikes to the core of people’s identities, and can really leave you shaken in terms of the safety and security you have,” he explained.

He looked to examples from Australia, where farmers had lost their land to extensive wildfires at the start of 2020. Those farmers experienced high rates of suicide relative to the rest of the population. They also saw gendered effects, where women were more often put in caretaking roles for family members under evacuation, and men took more of a focus on rebuilding. That cuts to the core of people’s identities, Card said, and can take a real psychological toll.

“To have experienced distress and that trauma already—it’s perfectly rational to be concerned now every time it rains.”

Melody said the same thing.

“There’s all these little things that you say to yourself—’look that’s not going to happen to me’—that allow you to enjoy and live life,” she said. “It just felt like that illusion of safety was shattered.”

That feeling hasn’t gone away.

“There will be moments where, again, it feels safe and comfortable,” she continued. “But always I think the disquiet in the back of my mind will be stronger.”

A flooded road in Sumas Prairie on Nov. 20. Damage persisted long after the floodwaters receded in the community. 📸 City of Abbotsford

Melody and Trevor were able to return to their largely-refurbished home on May 15—nearly six months to the day from when they were evacuated. They were lucky, in a sense, because they were able to complete many of their repairs without waiting for government funding like so many neighbours had to do.

(Engineer Alex Bouchard, who helped approximately 25 Sumas Prairie homeowners submit applications to the Disaster Financial Assistance program, estimated that the damage for individual homes ranged between $200,000 on the low end to over $1 million on the high end. Many residents had not yet received assistance by late spring. BC’s Disaster Financial Assistance program caps aid at $300,000)

But some residents won’t be returning. Katherine Michaloski was renting a home on Sumas Prairie with three roommates before fleeing to Chilliwack in November. Moving from the evacuation centre in Chilliwack, to a hotel, and finally to a basement suite in Abbotsford, she waited for her home to be repaired. But it wasn’t.

Despite being given the okay to move back in for mid-April by her landlord, building inspectors told her that the suite was not safe for occupancy yet. She had to find another place to live.

Eventually, she did: a house on top of a hill in Abbotsford, where her service dogs and roommates are able to look down on a flood if it ever happens again. But that hasn’t quelled the anxiety stemming from last November.

“I have overflowing water outside my bedroom window that is causing me to literally tense up in the middle of the night and wake up whenever it rains,” Katherine said. “There’s an alarm system on this house that I have to get the landlord to disconnect because it reminds me of the sump pump alarm.”

She said she was going for counselling every week, but that her mental health was “still a basket case.”

Victoria, at the still-running Yarrow Food Hub, said the same thing. During a particularly rainy day in May, she ran downstairs at 4am to make sure her sump pump was working.

“The whole entire day, it was just people stopping by or reaching out with some sort of flashback or trauma.”

That is why mental health services are one of the most important things the food hub continues to offer. Every Thursday, counsellors come to Victoria’s home to offer private sessions for Sumas Prairie survivors. It is a free, well-used service and one that Victoria said is critical.

“People are not going to be okay for a very long time.”

Victoria Kuit, standing inside the Yarrow Food Hub shed she built on her No. 3 Road property. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The future

In early June, Victoria’s driveway was lined with cars. The small shed built to house the Yarrow Food Hub supplies was filled with fresh bread, dishes, and boxes of clothes. A dining room set was on the lawn behind her house, and inside, people were meeting with counsellors in one-on-one sessions.

Victoria looked at the back wall of the shed, where thank-you cards and other pieces of memorabilia were pinned. Some were Christmas cards, others were from Valentine’s Day, Easter—half a year of holidays.

“You don’t do this for recognition,” she said, flipping over a card. “I just did it because you’re supposed to help your neighbours.”

She didn’t expect the food hub would still be going so many months later. But it has persisted. And she said she’s not going to let it stop.

“If there is a need and there’s a way that I can help, I’m more than happy to continue to supply that for the community.”

That, professor Card said, is exactly the sort of community spirit that could help Sumas Prairie navigate its current trauma, and become more resilient for next time.

“Having places that are there to build relationships and cohesion within a community are really critical.”

Doing that before a disaster is one of the best ways a community can prepare for the mental health challenges that will come after. But groups that are established during a crisis, like the Yarrow Food Hub, offer community that can help people manage their disaster-related trauma.

The challenge is keeping it going.

In late November, there were a number of churches, non-profits, and grassroots organizations all focused on helping flood victims. Most of the programs those organizations offered are no longer running. It’s a challenge Victoria has faced too.

“Unfortunately, now there’s very few people that want to help because they seem to think that, since the water is gone, the flood is over and people should be fine,” she said. “But in reality they’re not.”

Residents of Yarrow and Sumas Prairie created a place of community at Victoria Kuit’s Yarrow Food Hub in the early weeks of the Fraser Valley floods. 📸 Victoria Kuit/Submitted

The key, Card said, is getting municipal governments to take action on a local level. And not just when it comes to developing stronger community connections.

“I think it’s important to realize that the future is incredibly hard to predict,” he said. “There may never be another threat… or it could be a permanent, consistent challenge. Some of that choice is out of their hands. It’s about making sure that the government takes action on those things.”

That is easier said than done, as The Current has reported in the past. International relations around the Nooksack River are complicated, and improvements to protect the Canadian side of the border are extremely expensive.

Abbotsford’s approved Sumas Prairie protection plan could cost upwards of $2 billion—although the exact cost is still unknown. It will also depend on whether the provincial and federal governments decide to fund it. A key part of the plan is a new Sumas River pump station, although the city also plans on new dikes, floodways, and water storage areas to channel the overflow toward the Fraser River. You can read more about that plan here.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun has warned that building that new pump station will take years, and that work needs to begin immediately. But senior levels of government have not made any decisions yet: Washington State and BC have spent most of the time talking about who should sit on new decision-making bodies and committees.

Residents, though, say some action is needed now. They said they can’t go through another flood.

“It was enough time away that I was looking forward to coming back, and not terrified to come back,” Melody said, sitting next to Trevor in their living room on what had been the bed of Sumas Lake. “But now there’s this sense of worry that I’m going to lose it again.”

“It’s kind of this lingering question, as you look over the floodplain that surrounds you: how long can this last?”

Help is still available for people affected by November’s floods. Free counselling is available each Thursday at the Yarrow Food Hub (41620 No. 3 Rd.) between 9am and 4pm. The Hub itself is open Thursday through Saturday. For more details contact yarrowfoodhub@hotmail.com.

BC’s mental health support line (310-6789) is also available for anyone who needs support, as is the suicide hotline (1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-784-2433). BC’s AgSafe program also has free counselling services available for members of BC Agriculture.

Anyone who is interested in sharing their story from the November disasters is encouraged to contact coordinator@climatedisaster.uvic.ca to join the Climate Disaster Project. This project is part of a network based at the University of Victoria to develop a “memory vault” of last year’s flooding and landslides. Stories will be shared in The Current this fall.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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