Their stories, their words: The Climate Disaster Project

Ten people affected by last year’s flooding and landslides tell their individual stories as part of a collaboration between the Climate Disaster Project and the Fraser Valley Current.

By Fraser Valley Current Contributor | December 8, 2022 |5:00 am

The Fraser Valley Current has partnered with the Climate Disaster Project to publish a collection of 10 eyewitness narratives created in commemoration of the devastation wrought by last year’s atmospheric rivers. You can read each account here. To get every profile delivered to your email inbox, sign up below.

By Aldyn Chwelos and Sean Holman

A year ago, British Columbia’s most expensive storm rained down on the Fraser Valley.

It was as though the ocean itself was being wrung out above our heads. The torrent severed supply routes and the arteries that connect loved ones. It destroyed homes; drowned livestock and pets; threatened many lives and took others.

As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of such events, disasters will become the most reported news stories in the world.

Too often, the stories of those who lived through these disasters are confined to quotes and statistics about lives lost and damage done.

They become “some person that everyone shows interest in, but nobody knows much about,” as the survivor of another disaster decades earlier described his experience to Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. “We all turned into some kind of rare exhibits.” Disaster stories too often fail to acknowledge lives lived before the disaster and all the ways that people continue living afterwards.

But as Fraser Valley residents well know, the stories of climate disaster survivors are about more than what was lost and broken.

They’re also about the relationships and resiliency strengthened through this devastation, the healing after, and the hopes and demands that next time be different.

This is why the Fraser Valley Current partnered with the Climate Disaster Project, a new initiative coordinated at the University of Victoria that works with climate disaster survivors to share their full experiences, in their own words.

The work was sponsored by Overstory Media Group and undertaken by students and supervising faculty at post-secondary institutions across the country, including First Nations University of Canada, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Mount Royal University, and Toronto Metropolitan University.

Together, we created a series of eyewitness accounts that illustrate the range of human experiences precipitated by last year’s floods and the impacts that remain carved into the valley.

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To create these narratives, we worked with survivors of the flooding using a trauma-informed interviewing approach where storytellers work with journalists to develop their own interview questions. From those interviews, we created profiles using only the storytellers own words. Before anything was published, each survivor reviewed their story. This is because these are their stories, not ours. In doing so, this collection is an accounting of how ten people remembered what happened to them during last year’s atmospheric rivers.

It’s been a privilege to work with each storyteller in sharing their memories. As journalists, we’re often taught we are the curators and custodians of other peoples’ narratives. But this process has demonstrated that the people we cover know the stories they want to tell, and how to tell them. Our job is to support them in that process. We’re grateful that these storytellers allowed our team the opportunity to listen — and to learn.

Because disasters and the emergencies they create are revealing—even more so in the face of climate change. In fact, the term emergency comes from the Latin emergere, meaning to bring to light. Its opposite, mergere, means to submerge in liquid. These disaster narratives have emerged from last year’s floodwaters as testimony to the devastation and loss caused by the atmospheric rivers. But they also illuminate how we can avoid or mitigate such harm in the future.

As part of their interviews, survivors identified problems and solutions pertaining to both this specific disaster and climate change as a whole. In this way, the narratives exemplify not only great storytelling but also great reporting. The survivors told us about the help they did and didn’t receive during the floods. And they each spoke about the ways they came together with the people around them, be it family, friends, neighbours and even strangers.

“If there’s a silver lining to this flood,” Sumas Prairie resident Alison said, “it is community.” It’s in these communities we’ll find the hope that we can survive climate change together.

You can find each account here.

Aldyn Chwelos is the Climate Disaster Project’s senior research associate.

Sean Holman is the Climate Disaster Project’s director and the Wayne Crookes Professor of Environmental and Climate Journalism.

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