When a levee was breached a year ago and floodwaters began flowing through British Columbia’s Sumas Prairie, poultry farmer Corry Spitters said all he could do was go with the flow.
He said a sense of helplessness gripped him as the sea methodically engulfed his farm’s 21 barns, drowning his 200,000 chickens.
“You’re standing there and Mother Nature is in charge,” said Spitters, 67. What can you do? The water comes in and there is nothing you can do about it. “
As the rising water covered his chickens, all he could think was: “Thank God we didn’t (also) drown,” he said in an interview.
Record rainfall from an atmospheric river flooded southwestern British Columbia in November, flooding farmland, washing out major highways and railroads and forcing thousands to flee.
Five people died and insured losses amounted to $675 million in what the Insurance Bureau of Canada lists as the most expensive weather event in B.C.
A year after the disaster, provincial officials have spent the past week promoting reconstruction and recovery efforts. The government said permanent repairs to the levees are expected to be completed next month, with most dairy and poultry farms “back to normal” and Highway 8 reopened to the public after 25 washouts.
But any optimism will be tempered by the realization, from climate experts and residents alike, that the next big storm is likely to arrive sooner rather than later.
Francis Zwiers, a climate scientist and director of the Pacific Climate Impact Alliance at the University of Victoria, said the group conducted a study this year that concluded human-caused climate change had increased the likelihood of such events by 50 per cent.
“We think the likelihood of historically high numbers has increased because of human influence on the climate system,” he said in an interview.
Shattered records for nearly 20 communities and locations in B.C. indicate how much rain fell last November.
Coquihalla Highway Summit received 252mm of rain from the morning of Saturday 13 November to the following Monday afternoon. At Hope it was down 225mm and at Agassiz it was 208mm.
The rainfall caused such severe flooding that water gauges were damaged or unreadable in some places, Zwiers said.
“It’s hard to get a reliable answer from the gauges because usually when there’s a heavy rainfall event, the gauges become inaccurate,” he said in an interview. “Essentially, it gets damaged by the extreme currents that are generated.”
Sometime in mid-November, all major transportation links from Vancouver to inland British Columbia and east to Alberta were cut off by landslides or washouts, including the Trans-Canada Highway, Kokihara Highway, 3 Highway 99, Highway 99 and rail lines.
Zwiers told a Senate committee reviewing B.C. floods last June that while such storms were previously considered a 50- or 100-year event, precipitation of this magnitude is more likely to be a 12-year event.
Atmospheric rivers are classified as subtropical water vapor flows across the Pacific Ocean, Zwiers said.
“The special atmospheric river that occurred was aligned with the Fraser Valley, allowing moisture to penetrate relatively deep into southwest British Columbia,” he said.
Spitters of Oranya Farms in Abbotsford, Canada’s largest producer of organic chicken, said that in addition to drowning his flock, the flooding damaged and destroyed farm equipment.
“These birds alone cost over $2 million, and on top of that, our equipment damage, repairs and cleanup costs totaled over $1 million,” he said. “We lost between $3.3 and $3.4 million in total.”
But Spitters said he will be shipping 40,000 to 60,000 servings of organic chicken products to customers in western Canada about a month after the storm.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said last week that it’s been an emotional year for many British Columbia farmers, but most dairy and poultry farmers are back to normal, with most field crops planted as usual.
The breach of the Sumas Prairie dam put 1,100 farms on evacuation orders or alert, flooded 150 square kilometers of farmland and killed 630,000 chickens, 420 cattle and 12,000 pigs, she said.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said last week that repairs to the Sumas Levee were expected to be completed by the end of November, with 500 debris sites cleared. He said the province has approved more than $41 million in funding to repair and restore sites along the Fraser Valley waterways, while disbursing disaster financial assistance payments totaling $24.6 million.
Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Rob Fleming praised the work of maintenance crews to reopen Highway 8, which winds along the Nicola River between Merritt and Speen Between Spences Bridge. He called the repair a “significant milestone”.
However, these efforts have not allayed fears of a repeat disaster.
In Hope, about 150 kilometers east of Vancouver, Dewan Davesar and his wife, Rupinder, run Hope Pizza Place. They were widely praised for offering free hot meals to stranded travelers last year.
“I actually don’t know why I’m doing this,” Davisa said in an interview. “It was a signal from God. I think God gave me this signal.”
After the restaurant lost power, the family brought in a generator and handed out free pizza, garlic bread and tea for days, he said.
“They tried to give me money, but I said, ‘No, I don’t need money these days,'” Davisa said.
In the past year, Davesar said, he purchased additional coolers and now keeps a generator in the restaurant.
He is preparing for the next storm.
Dirk Meissner, Canadian Press
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