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Danie and Dian Brooks assess the damage inside their flooded home near the Similkameen River on Feb 7.Caillum Smith/The Globe and Mail

For more than seven months now, sister and brother Dian and Danie Brooks have struggled to repair their shattered lives after an orphan dike along a nearby river failed, nearly wiping out their home during unprecedented rains in British Columbia last November. Stuck in a tiny motel for months with a coterie of cats, dogs and a turtle, the resilient seniors recently returned to the property they’ve vowed they’ll rebuild. Somehow.

Last Nov. 13, at 2 a.m., the pair peered out their front door through the pitch dark and rain. Their home in the Similkameen Valley near Princeton, B.C., usually felt far enough away from the Similkameen River to prevent concerns about flooding. But now it was dirty brown, swift and choked with debris. And, though normally a safe half-kilometre away on the far side of the raised, protective bed of Hwy 3, the river was now raging across their yard and pouring into their house.

Two horses, Aura Blue and Mya Blue, both rescues, were snorting frantically nearby in their small corral on the Brooks’s 10-acre property. With water now topping the white-picket fence at the front of their house, Danie Brooks waded into the floodwaters to save them. “It was damn cold and filthy and full of stuff.”

Back inside the two-storey house, water had risen to about 1.5 metres on the first floor. Mr. Brooks sloshed through, joining his sister upstairs where she sought refuge along with their four rescue dogs, three cats and their turtle, Honu. They all spent two days upstairs with little food or water before rescuers made it to the home.

In Princeton, about 12 kilometres west of the Brooks home along Hwy 3, 300 homes flooded that same weekend when an intense atmospheric river system dumped unprecedented amounts of precipitation on southern B.C. Seemingly sturdy dikes designed to protect Princeton from the Tulameen River, which flows into the Similkameen river there, breached in two places.

But the siblings’ home was flooded by the crumbling of a different dike, one regarded as an orphan – a dike whose provenance has been disputed or forgotten over time. In recent years a number of reports have identified more than 100 orphan dikes, many of which could fail and flood properties in the more extreme precipitation and freshet (spring runoff) events expected with climate change. One assessment published in December, 2020, and commissioned by the Fraser Basin Council found many of the structures it examined had at least a medium risk of failure – and some are very high risk – in the event of unusually high water flows.

After the dike near the Brooks home gave way, the siblings’ house was deemed unlivable. Mr. Brooks’ treasured album collection, amassed over a lifetime, was coated in mud. So was the computer he’d uploaded his digital recordings to. The siblings’ insurance company, maintaining the pair had no coverage for overland flooding after a change it had made to their policy just months before the deluge, offered $12,000 in compensation. Their situation desperate, the Brookses – who say they were not properly informed of the policy change – felt they had no choice but to take the money. Not long before the flood, their house, not including contents, was assessed at $654,000.

They’d hoped for more compensation, and Ms. Brooks says she has written e-mails and made phone calls to every level of government, from the Regional-District of Okanagan-Similkameen to provincial government officials to federal government representatives, but no one will take responsibility for the failure of the orphaned dike, she says.

“Our lives are disrupted and we have no idea where we are going to go,” Ms. Brooks said at the time. “Our house has been completely flooded, and nobody seems to care.”

The history of the dike, which is located a few kilometres west of where they live, is a shrouded one.

“There are quite a few theories on when it was first built,” says Charles Weber, who lives a few kilometres from the Brookses. When the region was pounded by the rains last November, the torrential flow on the Similkameen caved in a lengthy section of its dike along a field on Mr. Weber’s 300-acre farm.

Based on his own post-flood research, Mr. Weber thought the dike had been built by the long-defunct Vancouver, Victoria & Eastern Railway (V V&E) sometime around 1912 to 1914 to protect its newly built rail line back then. That line was torn up in 1937, later becoming the base for the Hope-Princeton section of Hwy 3 when it was built in the 1940s.

Todd Davidson, the Operations Manager for Princeton and District Museum and Archives, thought the same until he dug deeper. The long-gone tracks, he discovered, did not hug the Similkameen River’s banks the way the dike still does. That was a clue the dikes in that area were built for another purpose.

Further research suggested the dike may have been built by farmers before the railroad came through – possibly in response to an 1894 flood.

That would make the orphan dike at least 127 years old when part of it failed. “These orphan dikes were done willy nilly and have not been maintained,” says Mr. Weber, who often went fishing from the section of dike that disintegrated into the Similkameen. “They’re past their best-before dates. We knew that this dike could go out in an extreme event.”

Bob Coyne was elected the RDOS director representing Area H, where the Brooks live, seven years ago. He said regional districts such as his have long lobbied the province to resume responsibility for flood management. He knows of many other orphaned and aging dikes in places such as Tulameen, Coalmont and others that badly need maintenance or upgrading, he said. But, he adds, local taxes are woefully insufficient to pay for them. “The people who live there are supposed to pay for those dikes. But they can’t afford it … Frustrated isn’t the word for it. In our role, we have such limited input into where the province is going.”

The failed length of dike that led to the flooding of the Brooks’s home was quickly repaired and upgraded during December and January by the province’s Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. It had to be. With massive chunks of the Coquihalla Highway ripped out by the same atmospheric river event, a huge amount of commercial truck traffic was diverted to Hwy 3 for months.

Over the long, uncertain winter months since the flood struck, the Brookses had feared their house would have to be torn down. If so, they’d vowed, they’d somehow rebuild – but this time with a house on stilts. But, Ms. Brooks cheered in her e-mail: “We ARE rebuilding.” They are doing so with the help of volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service, a charity that is continuing to help hundreds of residents in B.C. repair their flooded homes with free labour and building supplies.

The pair applied for Disaster Finance Assistance months ago; the provincial program is intended to help flood-affected residents lacking insurance repair their homes and replace some damaged or destroyed items such as furniture. It has a $300,000-per-household cap, and only covers damage up to the first floor. Even if they are determined eligible, worries Ms. Brooks, there’s no guarantee they’ll get even close to $300,000.

She says she has yet to hear from the DFA and has been told it could take up to a year before they do. She estimates the damage to their property at about $400,000. Their credit cards are maxed out and they still rely on the Red Cross to cover groceries and some other costs.

“Many of our belongings are irreplaceable. This is a common story with any disaster. However, if we are lucky, and thanks to the Mennonites, we may be back in our home by July.” But even though the orphan dike has been repaired where it failed, the Brookes worry that there are still many kilometres more following the Similkameen’s banks through forests and mountains that remain in uncertain condition after more than 100 years of neglect.

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