Skip to main content

Debris is seen as farms are surrounded by flood waters caused by heavy rains and mudslides earlier in the week in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 19.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Unprecedented flooding in southwestern British Columbia has left hard-hit communities dealing with the disposal of debris such as drywall, insulation, silt-soaked mattresses, couches and kitchen cupboards damaged by water that gutted homes and businesses.

Lia Bergen, who lives in the Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford, returned to her home nearly two weeks after an evacuation order from a trio of powerful storms last month to discover the destruction of furniture, two freezers, a fridge, two cars, and her husband’s heavy-duty work tools.

Some of the items have been carted away by volunteers, including members of the University of the Fraser Valley women’s basketball team, which showed up at her door and helped retrieve keepsakes from a crawl space, she said. The list of belongings stored there included letters from Ms. Bergen’s grandmother and a crib her father made for her now 29-year-old son, later used by two younger children. It’s too damaged to be passed on to her soon-to-be born grandchild.

Could Canada hold the U.S. liable for billions in B.C. flood damage?

How the B.C. floods revealed the fragility of Canada’s food system

“In the barn, we have a tractor and three riding lawn mowers, so I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to dispose of that,” she said.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said a second waste transfer station is expected to open for “mountains” of trash left outside homes after record rainfall killed thousands of livestock and devastated a prime agricultural area of the province.

“There’s just a monumental amount of debris that we have to collect and dispose of in order for people to get back into their homes and their businesses, their barns,” Mr. Braun said.

Items including 30-metre logs, bales of hay, wood pallets, propane and fuel tanks as well as uprooted sheds and vegetable stands have ended up in ditches along 190 kilometres of roads, he said. The ditches are used as part of a system to irrigate crops.

“We have to get all of this junk out of the ditches because we’re not through the rainy season yet so the water can actually drain out to the Barrowtown [pump] station or the Sumas Canal in a way that doesn’t reflood some of these farms.”

The Sumas and Matsqui prairies of Abbotsford make up Canada’s top agricultural-producing jurisdiction per hectare, Mr. Braun said, adding about 50 per cent of the dairy and poultry consumed by British Columbians comes from the area, where the recovery effort could take years.

Residents of Merritt and Princeton are also clearing debris.

Greg Lowis, information officer at the emergency operations centre in Merritt, said contractors with the regional district are collecting and disposing of debris at the local landfill.

He said items left at the curbside must be separated in accordance with environmental standards into four categories, including wood and large building material; metal, mattresses and appliances; food waste; and drywall and asbestos-containing materials.

Mud and soil that was piled onto lawns must be taken to a new facility at the local airport.

“There’s obviously concerns about contamination and safety, so we’re doing testing on the clay and the soil to see whether or not it’s safe to dispose in our [landfill] in Lower Nicola,” Mr. Lowis said.

Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne said the city of 3,000 in the Similkameen region has its own landfill contracted bins for trash from a local company.

Homes were filled with more than two metres of water, destroying hardwood flooring in century-old houses, with much of it laid atop layers of shiplap and covered with linoleum or carpet, creating even more garbage, Mr. Coyne said.

He’s eager to learn how much of the $5-billion contribution for disaster relief promised by the federal government will be going to small communities.

“I’d like to see our fair share of that come straight to the municipality to help for not only the rebuild, but the recovery of our community,” Mr. Coyne said, adding that the city expects to spend about $2-million of its money.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but in order for us to raise that, we have to have a 67.5-per-cent tax increase for our residents to pay for that next year.”

The Environment Ministry said in an e-mailed statement that recovery and debris management work will involve contractors, non-governmental organizations and a specialized contingent of BC Wildfire Service crews.

B.C.'s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says the province is lifting a 30-litre limit on gas tomorrow but he's extending a month-long state of emergency due to flooding for another two weeks, until Dec. 28. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming is heralding the work of crews doing major repairs on highways and says the timeline for reopening the Coquihalla may be sooner than early January.

The Canadian Press

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.