British Columbia’s costly efforts to recover from November’s rainstorms reached a milestone this week: The Coquihalla Highway reopened to non-essential traffic for the first time in two months and the provincial state of emergency related to the extreme weather event ended. For residents along Highway 8, however, Transportation Minister Rob Fleming could only offer the hope that they should be allowed to return to their homes in the spring.
The storm damage severed every major highway route between Vancouver and the B.C. interior in November, and the province estimates the emergency road repairs alone will cost between $170-million and $220-million. That figure does not include the long-term reconstruction work that will begin in the spring.
The damage to the Coquihalla Highway, a key transportation corridor for commercial vehicles, included multiple washouts from erosion and debris flows, as well as seven damaged bridges. Repair crews worked around the clock to clear a path for trucks and intercity buses on Dec. 20. As of Wednesday, the road will be open to all vehicles.
“Drivers must be aware that this is not the Coquihalla as we know it,” Mr. Fleming warned at a news conference on Tuesday. Some sections are just patched with one lane in each direction, awaiting a long-term plan to upgrade the highway to withstand a future of increasingly extreme weather owing to climate change.
Highway 1 in the Fraser Valley and up through the Fraser Canyon also saw significant damage. Mr. Fleming said the repairs include a temporary detour where a landslide sheared off about 70 metres of the highway. In another section, a temporary bridge, 80 metres in length, is being installed where the road was completely washed away.
The worst damage, however, was along Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge, which was largely destroyed after the series of atmospheric rivers that began to cross southern B.C. on Nov. 13.
In total, 23 sections of Highway 8 were damaged, including a total of seven kilometres where the entire highway has been lost.
“Temporary access has either been completed or is under construction now at 10 sites, with construction set to begin at 13 more sites in the near future,” Mr. Fleming said. He added that BC Hydro has been able to restore power to residents between Merritt and the Shackan Indian Reserve – one of the five First Nations communities along the corridor – and has also re-established some limited local traffic.
“All of this means that we expect to have temporary repairs on Highway 8 to a point where people can regain access to their homes this spring,” Mr. Fleming said.
Jackie Tegart, the Liberal MLA for Fraser-Nicola, said although the work so far to repair the catastrophic damage along Highway 8 is impressive, the provincial government has left hundreds of displaced residents along the corridor in limbo.
“The government needs to understand that people are traumatized, they need as much stability as possible,” she said in interview. Residents have been provided with emergency relief funds to pay for temporary lodging, but the support is set to expire in less than two weeks. “People don’t know if their supports are going to continue after January 31st. The calls are coming into my office, people are worried, ‘Where am I going to be on February 1st?’”
For some, there is nowhere to go back to in the spring. Ranchers, farmers and Indigenous residents witnessed entire properties swallowed by the Nicola River during the storms.
“There were a number of properties where not only the house but their land is gone,” Ms. Tegart said. “It is part of the river.”
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.