Big disasters, small budgets

In the second story of a three-part series, we look at how rural communities responded to November's disaster, and how provincial funding was essential to that work.

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 part two of a three-part series, we look at how the province did, and didn’t, support rural communities in their response efforts. 

Read part one of the series here: Small towns, big disasters.

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

The rain had been coming down for hours, soaking into Agassiz corn fields and loosening mountainsides along Harrison Lake. Just before 5:30pm, the Agassiz Fire Department got a call about a landslide on the road leading from Harrison Hot Springs to Sasquatch Provincial Park. Mike Van Laerhoven was one of the first there.

Mud and debris covered multiple stretches of Rockwell Drive; streams of water poured down the mountainside, cut through gravel driveways, and splashed into Harrison Lake. A swollen creek at the base of the provincial park threatened to destroy a bridge that had been built less than two years earlier.

It wasn’t a new sight for Van Laerhoven. In February 2020, a winter storm had caused similar landslides, and destruction, along the lakeside road. As the District of Kent’s emergency program coordinator, Van Laerhoven was responsible for working with the province to figure out how to fix a road that is not only the only access route for many living along Harrison Lake, but also technically a provincial highway.

“Every disaster is a little bit different,” Van Laerhoven said. “But they’re all managed in similar ways.”

Kent staff set up an emergency operations centre in Kent’s municipal hall in downtown Agassiz. Van Laerhoven got on the phone with Emergency Management BC to update them on a rapidly changing situation.

Just a couple hours after Van Laerhoven surveyed the Rockwell Drive damage, a landslide crashed over Highway 7, sweeping several cars off the road and stranding nine people in a swampy field of downed wires and freezing mud. The slide also cut off Hope’s final access to the Lower Mainland. Hours later, local firefighters waded through the debris field, navigating quicksand-like mud and fallen trees, to rescue the motorists. At 5am, Van Laerhoven finally went home to sleep. He was back at the EOC two and a half hours later.

“It was the same story for everybody else who was responding to that event,” Van Laerhoven said.

A month later, Van Laerhoven and Kent Mayor Sylvia Pranger were back at Rockwell Drive again, revisiting the damage and recovery from November’s storms. The bridge leading to Greenpoint Park was cracked and strewn with debris. Further down the road, a new stream had carved its way through a resident’s driveway and pushed through a rusting culvert. And a new bridge that had been installed only two years prior was also destroyed, the crossing replaced this time by four large culverts and a significant amount of gravel.

But considering all the damage, the homes along Rockwell Drive—and the road itself—were in relatively good condition. So was Highway 7, which had become a main thoroughfare for traffic through the Valley when Highway 1 was closed. It was partly luck, considering how few homes were affected by the slides. But Pranger also attributes it to the quick work of the Ministry of Transportation and Emergency Management BC.

“Actually, the District has found them very good to work with,” Pranger said about the province. “Part of that I’m sure is the connection Mike has developed with EMBC and our staff.”

Not every rural community found its disasters fell on such neat jurisdictional lines, however.

Who has jurisdiction?

In a way, Kent was lucky. Although there were significant landslides on Rockwell Drive and Highway 7 near the First Nation community of Seabird Island, most of the damage was limited to those two roads, both of which are provincial highways. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, which was responsible for closing provincial highways, was also responsible for fixing the roads. It sent contractors to Rockwell Drive and had the road reopened “relatively fast,” Van Laerhoven said.

“We had a discussion with them of what’s within our purview to do and not do,” Pranger said. “In the beginning, basically everybody was told [to stay away], and we have to respect that.”

Highway 7’s issues were bigger, with two large landslides to clear away, but it was the only potential link between Hope and the rest of the Lower Mainland and the ministry threw resources and crews at the road to reopen it as soon as possible. It was opened for emergency vehicles in two days, and fully opened to essential traffic within the week. (After several accidents turned Agassiz’s main streets into a parking lot, the ministry heeded Kent’s request to station tow trucks at the bottom and top of Mt. Woodside to quickly remove stalled or crashed vehicles.)

But not every municipality is quite so lucky. In the District of Hope, the Coquihalla River eroded the bank near the Fraser Canyon Hospital, threatening the facility. The Hope Golf & Country Club was also damaged by the surging Coquihalla River, creating a new channel through the fairway and greens. Hope received money from the province to shore up the land near the hospital, but is still waiting for funding that will help them repair some of the damage from November and prepare the district for the future. (Read more about that in our early February story.)

The Fraser Valley Regional District, as a different kind of government body, had its own challenges. There, financial responsibility for maintaining and fixing infrastructure is divided differently than in cities and towns. Instead of every resident paying a set percentage of property tax and widely sharing the burden of services and infrastructure, residents in different areas pay for individual services, as regulated by a service area bylaw. An area with a dike, like in the Chilliwack River Valley for example, may have a flood protection service area bylaw. Water treatment plants, sewer systems, fire protection, and animal control all are regulated by different service area bylaws.

But the regional district isn’t the only organization involved.

Provincial ministries and the private sector may be in charge of some infrastructure like roads and pipelines, FVRD chair Jason Lum said. “There might be local improvement districts involved,” he continued. “Throw a couple rail lines in just for fun, and then try to figure out who’s taking the lead on emergency response or emergency works.”

Who’s going to pay for all this?

The question of who was responsible was one of the major challenges the FVRD faced on Othello Road, where Katrina and Don Page lost their home at the end of November. Enbridge had a natural gas pipeline that crossed a portion of the Page’s property, and that company did some work to shore up the land against erosion. The Fraser Valley Regional District tried to get provincial funding to save that portion of Othello Road—and went public with its concerns about a lack of urgency from EMBC.

In a press conference on Nov. 29, Lum said the FVRD begged the province for faster funding approvals as key projects like that on Othello Road remained in limbo. “We need our partners in government to react quickly when a response comes—not hours or days after the fact,” Lum said at the time. “It is clear to us that the response system is broken and needs to be addressed.”

That prompted criticism from Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who said in an email that “there are countless communities around the province taking the actions necessary to protect their communities as we speak.”

Lum responded to that critique in a late night press release, expressing his frustration with the province. (You can read our coverage of that back-and-forth exchange here.)

“Some people think it’s just waiting to get the money reimbursed and that’s the challenge,” he later said. “But reimbursement implies that there is money there in the first place.”

As Othello Road showed, that is not always the case. Although the residents there paid for some services, there was not a service area bylaw for flood protection, which meant there was no money for flood-related work. Although the province did give verbal approval for the FVRD to go ahead with the $1.5 million project to shore up Othello Road, and an assumption that the money would be on its way soon, that only came after several homes had already been destroyed by the river.

(The restoration of Othello Road is ongoing, and involves a number of jurisdictions, including the FVRD, District of Hope, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, and Enbridge.)

Crews were able to start on other emergency work more quickly. FVRD workers removed debris in Frosst Creek near Cultus Lake soon after the first storm, without waiting for provincial funding, as the FVRD feared the debris could compromise the dike in that area. The area had a service area bylaw for both flood and debris control, which meant there was money in the bank to allow crews to begin clearing the area around the dike. Work continued until that money was gone, the FVRD said. Additional funding came from the province later to reimburse money spent on completed work and to pay for final sediment and debris removal.

The Current had requested an interview with Farnworth on EMBC’s role in the Fraser Valley disaster and the funding challenges the Fraser Valley Regional District experienced. The request was denied, as Farnworth was “unavailable.”

Instead, his office sent a statement: Local authorities are empowered to take immediate action to protect their community and critical infrastructure without waiting for provincial approvals. EMBC has been in ongoing contact with the Fraser Valley Regional District to try to resolve the challenges they are facing.

According to Lum, that “ongoing contact” did have positive effects. In total, the province approved more than 68 funding requests from the FVRD. Twenty-nine requests were approved after meetings between the province and the FVRD. Those requests included $11,520 to pay the North Fraser fire departments (the FVRD had requested $30,000 to pay its volunteer firefighters, but was denied on the basis that they don’t fund volunteer efforts), $100,000 for repairs on Osborne Road in the Chilliwack River Valley, and $267,000 for repairs to the Chilliwack RV Park and Campsite.

It’s progress, but the challenges between rural governments and the province aren’t over. When it comes to fixing communities, there is no clear line between what is emergency response work and what is recovery work (although BC’s disaster assistance does differentiate between the two). But, more than two months after the disaster, it’s clear government discussions are moving towards recovery.

In the FVRD, for example, staff are working to help residents on Othello Road get money from the province for properties that were washed away by the river. Elsewhere, Hope is waiting for provincial money to fix its dikes before the next freshet. The District of Kent, Harrison Hot Springs, and Seabird Island are also keen to develop an emergency evacuation route that could connect Rockwell Drive to the rest of the valley. (Currently, a landslide like the one that happened in November leaves no way out for residents other than by boat.)

“This whole disaster has brought to light a lot of things that we have to come to grips with, partly in the long term, but partly sooner than that,” Pranger said. “And [we’ll have to decide] how do we finance it and who’s going to govern it?”

Check out the first article in this series: Small towns, big disasters.

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