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It’s taken weeks of work and contributions from across B.C. to repair the damage left by heavy rains and the Tulameen River – and there’s still much more to do

Volunteer Darcy Davenport dons PPE before entering a flood-damaged home in Princeton, B.C., on Nov. 27. Princeton was one of the Interior communities hit hardest by mid-November's 'atmospheric river.'Photography by Caillum Smith/The Globe and Mail

Saturday was the eighth day in a row – at least she thought it was; she’d lost count in the haze of disaster – that Brittany Antonick had been recruiting volunteers to help people in the town of Princeton whose homes had been devastated in the flooding that affected large swaths of southern British Columbia last month.

The locals and a few out-of-towners who had responded to her pleas on Facebook had set about assisting residents with cleaning out the sludgy, ruined contents of their houses.

That morning, before heading to Veterans Square to give instructions to the assembled helpers, Ms. Antonick slumped into a chair in Mayor Spencer Coyne’s office and told him she was ending her involvement in the cleanup effort. “It’s my last day! I’m so sorry. We’re so done,” she said in a voice tinged with exhaustion and guilt.

Volunteer co-ordinator Brittany Antonick.

Princeton volunteers such as Ms. Antonick are suffering from exhaustion caused by weeks of emotionally and physically taxing work. In the 14 days after the floods, her group managed to empty out about 50 homes. But in the town of 3,000, where 295 residences were badly damaged when the rain-swollen Tulameen River tore through the streets, many more families still need help.

Ms. Antonick has lived all her life in Princeton, where she operates a body-waxing business out of her home. A few days earlier, she had led a group of volunteers to a home whose interior was carpeted in thick mud. The water that flooded in from the river was so contaminated that nothing could be salvaged, including a crib, toys and clothes she found in an infant’s room.

“I personally had to throw away everything in that nursery,” said Ms. Antonick, who has a three-year-old child of her own. “It was heartbreaking. It cracked me a little.”

“I love Princeton. And I just know so many people affected. I just had to help.”

B.C.

Alta.

DETAIL

Kamloops

Merritt

Lytton

Fraser River

Coldwater River

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Kelowna

Princeton

Hope

Vancouver

Agassiz

Abbotsford

U.S.

0

25

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

B.C.

Alta.

DETAIL

Kamloops

Merritt

Lytton

Coldwater River

Fraser River

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Kelowna

Princeton

Hope

Vancouver

Agassiz

Abbotsford

0

25

U.S.

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS

Yukon

NWT

Kamloops

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Lytton

DETAIL

U.S.

Merritt

Hwy 5

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Kelowna

Fraser River

Coldwater River

Princeton

Hope

Agassiz

Vancouver

Hwy 7

0

25

KM

Abbotsford

UNITED STATES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS

Shortly after the floods, Ms. Antonick started a Facebook page for volunteers. Since then, every evening at 8:15, she and a core group of four women had conferred over Skype to co-ordinate the next day’s tasks and put out a fresh call for helpers. They usually enlisted between 15 and 20 people each day.

Ed Vermette, the vice-president of Princeton’s Vermilion Forks Métis Association, was one of them. Although his own home wasn’t damaged by the flooding, he, like many British Columbians, felt compelled to lend a hand. The Vernon Métis Association sent $5,000 for him to spend on aiding the recovery. More contributions have since come in from other donors.

On Saturday, the 63-year-old stood by his pickup, ready to dole out mops, shovels, buckets and protective equipment, including N-95 masks and hazmat suits, for the cleaning jobs ahead. “In prior floods Princeton has always banded together,” he said. “But I wrote something on my Facebook recently: I have never seen what I’ve seen this time. The outpouring of support. These people come every day. It’s just incredible to watch.”

At top, Ed Vermette, vice-president of the Vermillion Forks Metis Association, hands out PPE to volunteers. Amy and Jon Wood stand covered in mud outside their flood-damaged home.

In front of a white picket fence on one flooded street was a massive, grimy pile of household things that once belonged to Jon and Amy Wood. Friends of the Woods – joined by Ms. Antonick’s volunteers – trudged through nearly ankle-deep muck as they carted lamps, electronics, plant pots and many bags of ruined clothes from the family’s rented home.

Mr. Wood, 48, is a foreman at a local mine. After a warning call from a co-worker just after midnight on Nov. 15, he, his wife and his daughter had five minutes to get themselves and their three dogs out. In near-total darkness, Ms. Wood, with two of the family’s dachshunds tucked under her arms, tripped on the porch and fell face first into flood water, which was already a half-metre deep.

“My wife’s passion is collecting tropical plants,” Mr. Wood said. “They’re all drowned.”

He put the family’s loss, including snowmobiling and camping gear kept in their back garage, at $60,000. Insurance, he said, will only cover $10,000 of that.

With rental housing in the area limited even before the flood, the Woods expect they’ll have to live in their fifth-wheel trailer for the winter.

“We’re trying to stay positive,” Mr. Wood said. “The help we’ve gotten from the community has been unbelievable.”

At the Princeton and District Arena, volunteers, including members of the Princeton Highland Dancers and the Penticton Indian Band, help sort donations. The mayor's sister Clara Coyne, shown in a room full of donated fans, was there to help co-ordinate the efforts.

Although Princeton still needs volunteers, officials – including Mr. Coyne, the mayor – say that the town has received more than enough donations of supplies. Mr. Coyne has been urging would-be donors to instead give money to the Community Foundation of South Okanagan-Similkameen.

In a large studio at the local arena, Clara Coyne, the mayor’s sister, was directing a group of 10 volunteers. They were sorting out large piles of clothing and other donations. Her helpers included three kids from a local dance troupe called the Princeton Highland Dancers, and a woman who came from the Penticton Indian Band, 110 kilometres away.

A changing room below was stocked with about 300 industrial floor fans donated by Canadian Tire, for residents to use to dry out their sodden homes. Pallets of donated dehumidifiers were on the way.

“People from this province have been incredibly generous,” Ms. Coyne said. But, looking at the expanding piles of clothing and toiletries, she sighed. “The thing about this area is that everybody is willing to give. But it’s really hard to convince people to take. Because even people who’ve been flooded out feel like there’s somebody out there who needs help more than they do.”


B.C. floods: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

Reporters Andrea Woo and Ann Hui spoke on The Globe and Mail’s news podcast about the post-flood situation in Abbotsford, part of B.C.’s agricultural heartland, and what impact it will have on the food supply. Subscribe for more episodes.

More coverage

B.C. flood updates: Storm forecasts, road closings and more

After B.C. floods, Princeton’s mayor battles the elements and bureaucracy to save his hometown from ruin

Merritt residents come home to find destruction and sorrow

Were B.C.’s dikes ever up to the job of stopping floods like these?

Fire and water: How B.C.’s string of natural disasters are connected


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