The lingering questions (and new ones), one year after a historic disaster

Everyone wants to prevent the next disaster. Whether anyone is able to do so remains to be seen.

By Tyler Olsen | November 15, 2022 |5:00 am

Everyone wants to prevent the next disaster. Whether anyone is able to do so remains to be seen.

A year since last year’s epic storms and floods, real progress has been made in preparing British Columbia for future extreme weather events. And yet major questions remain.

As the water receded last December, residents, media, academics, and government officials began trying to process exactly what happened and what needs to be done to reduce the likelihood that it would occur again.

The disaster was of such a magnitude that a year later there remains significant attention on BC’s readiness for the next big flood. At the same time, it is now possible to judge where progress has been made, where ongoing efforts may yet bear fruit, and where significant weaknesses remain.

Last December, we highlighted 11 questions facing the province if it hopes to prepare for the next disaster. Today, we’ll look at which questions have been answered, which have not, and what else we have learned over the past year.

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The Answers

Q: How long will it take for the people of the Fraser Valley to be protected against its own version of the Big One—a major Fraser River flood?

A: Who knows. The province has promised a new flood strategy and a new framework for funding upgrades to the insufficient dikes that protect Fraser Valley communities from a devastating Fraser River flood. The strategy will supposedly be released in 2023, though it’s unclear when actual improvements to flood protections will begin in a comprehensive way.

A whole new round of consultations was only launched in October. But the job is massive—and costly—and will take years to complete even after any strategy is actually published.

A dike system is only as strong as its weakest point, so the region won’t be protected until its weak links are upgraded. That could take years, if not decades, depending on government priorities and funding commitments.

Read: Unpacking local flood risk: Abbotsford | Langley | Chilliwack | Mission

Progress: Early steps / long way to go

Q: What action is needed to ensure our cities’ drainage systems can handle storms as large as those last year?

A: The valley’s cities are faced with an array of infrastructure challenges. Drainage is a perennial issue. Abbotsford, for instance, had already formulated a strategy for gradual upgrades to its system before the storms. But a variety of other infrastructure demands—larger interchanges to accommodate a widened highway, higher dikes, and more recreation facilities for a growing population—all will likely keep drainage as one of those issues that cities look to gradually improve over time, rather than overhaul.

Progress: Ongoing / incremental

Q: How can we better educate residents about this region’s complex, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing history?

A: Last November’s disaster highlighted the pre-existence of Sumas Lake for many people and the lasting impact of European settlement. The last year has seen academics, journalists, and governments all take a new interest in the topic. The University of the Fraser Valley and local museums have been particularly active.

Ensuring those efforts reach the broad public is one challenge, though. The other is finding permanent ongoing ways to mark and memorialize the region’s history in an appropriate way.

It’s one thing to tell the story today to residents. It’s another thing to figure out how to educate newcomers to the region over the coming decades.

Read: Sumas Lake, the Nooksack River, and the historic roots of a 21st Century disaster

Progress: Ongoing / incremental

Q: Should the relationship between municipalities and the province change when it comes to emergency management?

A: The province has already indicated a willingness to take more of a leadership role in preparing its citizens for disasters and not delegate all emergency management to municipalities.

The province has begun to use the provincewide alert system on a more regular basis, and it is leaning more heavily on its army of public relations workers to communicate disaster awareness messages.

But it remains to be seen if and how Emergency Management BC will use its regional muscle to improve co-ordination between local governments and make sure residents get the information they need wherever they live. The recent wildfire near Hope, during which Chawathil First Nation complained of a lack of information from neighbouring jurisdictions, suggests the need for more improvement.

Progress: Early stages / long way to go

Q: What resources does Hope need to help people in need during emergencies?

A: Last November’s landslides, wildfires this year and last, and perennial snowstorms have repeatedly left travellers stranded in Hope. The town is the entrance to three major highways connecting the Lower Mainland and the Interior.

It is also quietly a transportation hub—one that is highly vulnerable to the vagaries of mountain weather—but lacks the necessary infrastructure to support the hundreds of travellers that get stranded there on a fairly regular basis. With little talk over the last year about the community’s place in BC’s emergency and transportation systems, this is a topic The Current, at least, will return to.

Read: Small towns, big disasters

Progress: Minimal

Q: Do we need to create permanent locations to house evacuated citizens for indefinite periods of time?

A: This year, BC has largely escaped the mass evacuations that punctuated 2021’s fire season. But it’s unclear what, if anything, has been done to improve the province’s evacuation and emergency response infrastructure. Many Lytton residents remain displaced more than a year after that community burned down. And many impacted by last year’s flooding were forced out of their homes for weeks or months.

The province’s evacuation apparatus remains dependent on volunteers and municipalities with varying capacity. Housing those evacuees, meanwhile, remains largely piecemeal and focused on sending people to hotels, not all of which are well-suited to the purpose. There has been little indication that the federal and provincial governments are seriously working on building a new system for the 21st Century.

Read: Kanaka First Nation has proposed such a system, but has received a lukewarm response.

Progress: Minimal

The bridge over the Nooksack River at Everson causes floodwaters to back up and flow north toward Canada. 📷 Tyler Olsen
The bridge over the Nooksack River at Everson causes floodwaters to back up and flow north toward Canada. 📷 Tyler Olsen

Q: When does Canada give up on the Americans’ unwillingness to prevent the Nooksack River from spilling its banks?

A: Canada appears to have conceded that the Nooksack will again be allowed to flood north. We wrote a large piece this fall about the political calculations involved. The next steps appear to be reconciling Abbotsford’s floodway plans with those south of the border.

Read: The Life and Times of the Nooksack River | Why stopping Sumas Prairie from flooding is ‘not politically feasible’

Status: Done (for better or worse)

Q: How can the province’s vast communications bureaucracy better provide citizens with the information they need when they need it?

A: The BC government communication bureaucracy has clearly taken a more pro-active stance in the wake of last year’s flooding. As new storms bore down on the region this year, a multitude of warnings were issued. The province has also begun to use its phone-based emergency alert system to warn people about evacuations in their area.

There is, though, still progress to be made. Commuters were given no warning this year that a wildfire near Hope could impact Highway 1 traffic until the highway was closed.

The province also continues to lack a rating system for atmospheric rivers. And there remains no system to officially warn people about the danger of natural disasters before an actual evacuation alert is issued for their neighbourhood.

Progress: Ongoing / Moderate

A ‘tiger dam’ used to prevent flooding was installed on Highway 1. It closed the route to traffic for several days weeks after the initial flood. 📸 BC Transportation/Twitter

Q: Does there need to be a better alternate route between Chilliwack and Abbotsford?

A: Last year’s closure of Highway 1, along with other weather and traffic-related closures in the past, show the fragility of the connection between Chilliwack and Abbotsford. Thousands of people commute on that route every day, and it’s a key corridor for the movement of goods across the country. When it’s closed, traffic gets very messy.

At this point, there has been little discussion about adding another route over the Vedder Canal. But officials are actively evaluating and discussing the resiliency of Highway 1 and other important routes. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming told The Current that the last year demonstrated the importance of other highways like Highway 7, 9, and 11, which can carry traffic if Sumas Prairie is impassable.

And he said that building those highways to higher, more-resilient standards is needed.

Fleming said there does need to be a shift of resources “towards proactive upgrading and repair,” when it comes to highway projects. He said that could mean increasing the capacity of culvert systems and accelerating the replacement of vulnerable bridges.

Read: How raising the Sumas dike could spur highway widening between Chilliwack & Abbotsford

Progress: Minimal / planned

Q: What needs to be done at Abbotsford’s Barrowtown Pump Station to better protect against rising floodwaters?

A: The potential flooding of the Barrowtown Pump Station was perhaps the most dramatic event of last year’s disaster after the initial landslides. The pump station is responsible for draining water from the eastern part of Sumas Prairie. Despite its importance, last November revealed the station itself was not sufficiently flood-proofed.

Since then, Abbotsford has developed its own complex flood mitigation plans to prevent a repeat of last year’s flood. The most important development would be the creation of a second pump station that could move water out of the prairie when the Fraser’s waters are particularly high. That could prevent a repeat of last year’s scenario, when floodgates between the Sumas and the Fraser had to be closed, leaving the Nooksack’s water to accumulate in the prairie—and rise near the pump station.

Upgrades to Barrowtown are also planned, and a spokesperson told The Current the city has also bought new equipment—including two new sand-bagging machings, and large “mega” sand bags—that can be used to protect the pump station if waters rise around it again. The city says it is also looking at moving supplies to key positions, including Barrowtown, to make sure they are quickly accessible.

Read: The two Sumas prairies, and why the Barrowtown floodgates are so important

Progress: Ongoing / New pump station planned but funding needed

Q: How much will all this cost—and are residents willing to pay now to prevent more costs down the line?

A: We still don’t know just how much money will be spent, and when it will be spent, to better disaster-proof the Fraser Valley. In fact, we may never know, since the task of reducing the region’s vulnerability will never be complete.

What we do know is this: protecting against another Nooksack flood will cost billions; protecting against an even-worse Fraser River flood will cost even more.

When it comes to the transportation system, Fleming said there is acknowledgment federally of the need to shift resources towards trying to disaster-proof regions.

“The federal government, I think, is beginning to realize that it’s actually more cost-effective to—bit by bit, year by year—start to shift investment towards avoiding disaster recovery.”

It remains unclear if those shifts will happen quick enough to complete the work necessary to prepare for future extreme weather events.

Status: Still unknown

New questions

Langley, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford all have wastewater treatment plants along the Fraser River. 🗺 Bing Maps
Langley, Chilliwack, and Abbotsford all have wastewater treatment plants along the Fraser River. 🗺 Bing Maps

Wastewater treatment plants

Last November, the entire city of Merritt was evacuated after its wastewater treatment plant was flooded. This spring, we looked at the resiliency of Fraser Valley wastewater plants and found major gaps.

In Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Langley, wastewater plants are located on floodplains and susceptible to a major Fraser River flood. Chilliwack has a bypass system that allows waste to be moved straight to the river, but no such system exists in Abbotsford. If the plant there floods, one can expect sewage to back up across Matsqui Prairie and within the system.

In Langley, a wastewater plant run by Metro Vancouver that serves users around the region is being replaced. But we found it appears there has been no preparatory plans made for what would be done if the current plant is flooded.

The plants are particularly important in Abbotsford and Langley because each serves huge numbers of residents who do not live on a floodplain and could conceivably remain in their homes in the event of a major Fraser flood. Both plants have expansions planned that will make them more resistant to flooding. At the moment, though, they remain a weakness in each community’s disaster fortifications.

Read: Backups & bypasses: what happens if a flood hits a Fraser Valley sewage plant?

Disaster assistance

Disaster assistance and insurance programs are a vital way that help is delivered to those most impacted by flooding and fires. But communication problems plagued the delivery of funds through the Canadian Red Cross, which partnered with the federal and provincial governments to deliver aid.

The federal Disaster Financial Assistance program encountered similar problems, and its assistance cap of $300,000 hasn’t been adjusted in years, despite the rising cost of property. Both programs will need modernization and improvement to cope with the increasing frequency of events and the rising cost of living to ensure all those who need help get it.

The Canadian military fill sandbags to help shore up Huntingdon against approaching floodwaters. 📸 Meaghen Holding/Submitted

The local army and the actual army

Looking back on Sumas Prairie a year later, two key related turning points stand out.

The first was the heroic work by residents to not only provide support to neighbours, but also to deliver key disaster protection work. That included sandbagging the Barrowtown Pump Station, along with large-scale community sandbagging work in other locations.

Last November suggested that cash-strapped governments can make better use of residents. But it also showed that planning and dialogue prior to any emergency is crucial to actually harnessing that energy, while not constraining grassroots efforts with red tape. Each community could start generating lists of volunteer sandbag fillers and companies to draw on the next time a river rises. But that work needs to be done before an emergency begins.

The second turning point was the arrival of the Canadian military, and the key work they provided to shore up the Sumas dike, sandbag properties in the Huntingdon area, and prepare for a second wave of storms.

The Canadian military gets grief, but 2021 showcased the immense talent and usefulness of its members. As BC baked during June and July of 2021, the provincial government was slow to call for help from the military. When they did arrive, they provided crucial assistance during a devastating summer.

Governments should consider whether they can make more use of the military for natural and climatic disasters. And if they can, but the military doesn’t have the present-day capacity, it’s worth considering whether that needs to be expanded. The United States Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps is dedicated to maintaining dikes and other flood infrastructure around that country, while providing military assistance when needed. Could Canada use something similar?

Read: Thousands of sandbags and a grateful community

Beyond building back

Over the last year, politicians have repeatedly spoken with some passion about the necessity of “building back better.” The idea is that it isn’t good enough to just repair damage from last year’s flooding. Instead, repairs and improvements are needed to make infrastructure and communities less vulnerable in the future.

The challenge, though, is that there are plenty of roads, highways and dikes that didn’t fail last year, but could fall next time. So reducing the vulnerability of communities does not just entail “building back better.” It also requires upgrading undamaged roads, infrastructure, and complex government systems before they fail.

That is a huge job. And it’s one that comes at a problematic time: the recovery from 2021 is still ongoing, there are whispers of a recession, and the country’s health care system continues to buckle. Just maintaining service levels is a challenge.

And who knows what next year will bring. BC can expect more fires and extreme weather over the coming years. Meeting those climatic challenges will require constant and ongoing improvement of infrastructure.

Governments and politicians say they are taking steps to better protect Canadians and British Columbians. But if the climate changes quicker than our governments can improve our infrastructure, more devastating outcomes are likely. So far our governments have failed to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather. Natural disasters are leading to more evacuations, higher damage costs, more power outages, and a host of other negative effects, some of which could be mitigated with better preparation.

There are things that can be done to improve this province’s resiliency. But they all cost money and take time.

Join more than 25,000 other Fraser Valley residents by subscribing to our newsletter. Every weekday morning you’ll get a new feature story and other stories, news, and events from Chilliwack, Abbotsford, Langley, Mission and the rest of the valley. See a recent newsletter here.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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