Our Crisis: What the storms taught us about our valley—and ourselves

The floods exposed a lingering flood threat, fragile infrastructure, unresponsive bureaucratic systems—but also strength, community, and heroism.

By Tyler Olsen | December 3, 2021 |6:20 am

It’s over. But it’s not over.

A break in the weather suggests that concerns about new flooding should ease. But recovering from November’s rain will take a long time. Highways remain closed and a vast expanse of Sumas Prairie remains underwater.

But with a moment to breathe, it’s worth taking stock about what we know, what we don’t know, and the big questions that will need to be answered in the months, years, and decades to come.

Today, we’re going to focus on what we know and have learned over the last month. There is no way this can be a comprehensive list, but if you’d like to add what you’ve learned, hop on over to our Facebook page.

The superficial consequences of November’s storms are now pretty apparent, but the disaster revealed disturbing facts that Fraser Valley residents, and all of BC, will be reckoning with for years to come. It also revealed, to anyone who may have been unsure before, the potential for incredible feats of humanity.

Flooding in Abbotsford has made the Nooksack threat a matter of international politics 📷 City of Abbotsford

What we already knew

Much of our newfound knowledge isn’t actually all that new. Or shouldn’t be. The summer’s forest fires exposed the vulnerability of our province to natural disasters—including much of the province’s vital infrastructure. November’s floods and mudslides were no different, though providing a new and different series of challenges.

The storm has broadened the public understanding of risks and vulnerabilities that experts have warned about for years, and confirmed the financial and human costs of delaying preparations for a potential disaster. Five people were killed in landslides on Highway 99, and across the Fraser Valley, lives, plans, and businesses have been upended.

We already knew that the Sumas dike was expected to fail in the event of a major Nooksack flood. This reporter had written about it five years ago. But the flooding of Sumas Prairie showed both the dike’s importance and its vulnerability to those who never before considered it.

OUR STORY: A doomed Sumas dike failed as predicted. Many other levees could be next.

We knew the Fraser Valley is an essential transportation, energy, and commuting corridor. But November has revealed how a single natural disaster—even just a localized storm—can upset life far beyond the Fraser Valley. One narrow gap in the valley just west of Hope is home to the two transcontinental rail lines, two major highways, and two pipelines.

After the arrival of the Canadian military, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun repeatedly emphasized the importance of Barrowtown Pump Station and the danger of further flooding to the nation’s transportation corridors. Those statements likely foreshadow demands for more help from local governments to maintain and improve flood-proofing in the region. Already things seem to be shifting, with Premier John Horgan conceding that the current funding system for flood protection infrastructure is broken. That admission is new, even if the province had previously been told the current governance system wasn’t working.

OUR STORY: Why the Barrowtown floodgates are so important

Matsqui First Nation Chief Alice McKay watches as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks at maps of flooding at the Abbotsford emergency operations centre look on. 📸 Tyler Olsen

The highway closures also demonstrated how interconnected the Fraser Valley is, and how even its school systems depend on the regular movement of workers from one community to another.

We have been reminded of the crucial role Barrowtown Pump Station plays and the dramatic consequences if it fails: if Sumas Lake were to completely fill with water, Braun said Highway 1 would be closed for months.

Sumas Lake itself has been thrust back into the public eye, with the broad public exposed to the decision to drain the lake a century ago. The lake’s re-appearance has revealed the challenges caused when humans try to reshape their world, and how the draining of the lake shaped the region’s geography, growth, and susceptibility to disaster. We know that the lake provided sustenance for the people who lived on its shores, and that they objected to the decisions to drain it and were ignored.

OUR STORY: A drained lake, a re-routed river, and the rain: the deep roots of the Sumas flood crisis

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Members of the military help build a sandbag barrier in Huntingdon Village over the weekend. 📸 Meaghen Holding/Submitted

What we learned

This week, we learned governmental delays and communication issues prevented work from starting near Hope to protect Othello Road and nearby homes from falling into the Coquihalla River. Who was truly at fault is up for debate, but we know the FVRD asked for money to protect the road, and didn’t get the go-ahead until two more families were homeless.

OUR STORY: The bureaucracy and the flood: disaster hits the valley’s rural communities

Highway 7 has been shown to be incapable of being the only transportation route through the Fraser Valley long-term. Over the last three weeks, it has been shut down multiple times not only for weather-related reasons, but also because of a series of crashes.

We have learned Hope, as the nexus of three major highways that connect the Lower Mainland and the rest of the country, is incredibly important but also vulnerable and lacking sufficient resources to host hundreds or thousands of stranded travellers.

The need to ration fuel has shown the importance of the Fraser Valley as a corridor for the gas that fuels the Lower Mainland’s millions of vehicles.

We have learned sewage systems in many parts of the Fraser Valley are unable to handle a series of storms like those we saw in November.

We know that an American river many have never crossed before poses a danger to homes and businesses in Canada. The Nooksack River’s threat was previously known to local officials, but it was only revealed to the public and much of the media once floodwaters started pouring downhill into Abbotsford. We have learned that resolving the river’s issues are extremely complex and will involve politics on an international level.

We all now hopefully know that Mt. Baker, despite being a volcano located in the United States, can dramatically impact the Fraser Valley, via the Nooksack River (and other ways). And we know that warmer temperatures, with its additional rain and less snow on Baker, will likely increase winter peak flows in the Nooksack over the coming years.

OUR STORY: The Volcano and The River

The disaster has confirmed the importance of the Fraser Valley to the supply of milk, eggs, and other food products to people both locally and across the province. And we know the vital productivity of the Sumas Lake bed, which is home to nearly all of Abbotsford’s vegetable farms. We also know that recovering soil productivity after weeks underwater is going to be challenge for farmers.

OUR STORY: Tackling the Fraser Valley’s devastating dairy crisis

We know that governments can learn: during the first flood, despite its emerging possibility (we mentioned it in our Nov. 15 newsletter) the need to close Highway 1 seemed to take highway officials by surprise and left many commuters stranded; before the second series of storms, officials provided notice that they would be closing Highway 1 on a proactive basis

We know that while Yarrow is technically in Chilliwack, its proximity to the Sumas Lake bed means the community’s safety is tied, in part, to the success or failure of dikes and flood management in Abbotsford. We have learned or been reminded of the vulnerabilities of many many other small Fraser Valley communities, including Clayburn Village, the Chilliwack River Valley, and the Hatzic Valley and Island.

And we all know what a Tiger dam is now.

Story continues below.

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Across the Fraser Valley, volunteers filled thousands of sandbags to help residents protect their homes 📷 Melissa Klebe/Klebe Photography
Across the Fraser Valley, volunteers filled thousands of sandbags to help residents protect their homes 📷 Melissa Klebe/Klebe Photography

Who we are

We don’t only know about our fragile valley and province, however. We have also learned about ourselves and our communities.

We know people across the Fraser Valley will work ceaselessly to help their neighbours in the most stressful and tiring of circumstances. We saw a range of new organizations and groups spring from nothing to respond to an emergency on their own, and often with no outside direction.

We know social media, for all its flaws, was a vital source of information, and an incredible resource for the mobilization of volunteers. Thousands of people used social media to find out how they could help, and then they helped. As the late-November storms approached the valley, self-appointed volunteers co-ordinated massive sandbagging operations to help people protect themselves and their property. They sourced supplies and sand, rallied citizens to fill bags, and found drivers to deliver them to people’s homes. Residents offered up their services in whatever way they could help: one grandmother offered to care for the children for anyone who needed an emergency babysitter.

We know that bad news can create good results: a scary press release foreshadowing doom helped inspire hundreds of volunteers to rush to forestall that doom. Sometimes a little bit of community panic can be a good thing.

We know that generosity and support goes beyond racial and religious lines. Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities worked together to protect and help one another, whether by opening an Indigenous art gallery to stranded drivers, or delivering needed goods to isolated reserves. A gurdwara made more than 3,000 meals to fly into an isolated community at risk of running out of ready food.

OUR STORY: Thousands of sandbags and a grateful community

We know people from various professions can use their expertise in a major emergency: recreational fishing guides and pilots played critical roles in helping stranded people and communities.

We know that when the military comes in to help, residents will help them back. And when farmers are in trouble, the industry bands together to evacuate, house, and care for their livestock.

We know our communities are stronger than the crisis. What we don’t know is how we will take the next step.

What did you learn during the floods? Tell us on our Facebook page, and we may use your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

Next week, we’ll look at the many unanswered questions posed by the Fraser Valley floods and landslides.

Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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