More support is coming for the smaller, flood-stricken B.C. communities still stranded by shattered highways and facing more rain in the forecast, the province’s Public Safety Minister says.
At a flood briefing Wednesday, Mike Farnworth said the military was now on site in the devastated town of Princeton and that the province has set up a hotline for evacuees to get information about new risks and the various forms of assistance they can now access.
“Through all of this, some people are returning to their homes in Merritt, Princeton and elsewhere,” Mr. Farnworth said. “They’re beginning the difficult work of dealing with the debris and the destruction that flood waters left behind. And yet others remain evacuated, some now for more than a week.”
Massive cleanup efforts are under way in communities large and small throughout the province. While the military landed earlier this week in Abbotsford to help repair the dike system designed to protect that important agricultural region, Merritt, Princeton and smaller municipalities to the east have been struggling with the enormity of what lies ahead.
The sewage system in Merritt was overwhelmed and countless houses destroyed, including some mobile homes that simply floated away. The nearby town of Spences Bridge lost its lifeline to Merritt and parts farther east when Highway 8 was sheared in multiple places by landslides. And homes in Princeton have been inundated with mud and debris after catastrophic flooding in that town.
Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Murray Rankin also announced new teams to help First Nations communities with no clear access to the provincial highway system. They will be staffed by personnel from the First Nations Emergency Service Society, the First Nations Health Authority, Indigenous Services Canada and Emergency Management BC.
“Yesterday I was on a call with First Nations leaders and Minister Farnworth,” Mr. Rankin said Wednesday. “We heard from impacted communities. We heard their concerns as to how we could improve our response. And I heard we have more work to do.”
Hundreds of First Nations people across the province have had to flee their homes this year as a result of fires or floods, with some now having been displaced twice. Indigenous communities say they have been hardest hit in part because of a reserve system that created small, scattered sites, some of which are criss-crossed by highways, pipelines or railway tracks. The response in these regions has been hampered in part by their relatively small populations, lack of equipment and limited infrastructure, such as a dearth of community halls or fire trucks.
Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan says she and her neighbours in a dozen properties along a rural stretch of Nicola River, northwest of Merritt, have not received any provincial help yet. She and two others are now crowdsourcing $50,000 online so 27 people can hire helicopters to return to their homes and prepare them for the winter. The nearby highway was severed in several places by landslides.
“There’s just so much devastation throughout the whole south of the province – whether it’s Princeton, the Lower Mainland with the cattle and the chickens that are dying. I understand that the attention is going to be focused where there is a higher density of the population,” Ms. Varcoe-Ryan told The Globe and Mail Wednesday. “We are very few, but our disaster is huge.”
She and her partner evacuated when she saw Highway 8 crumbling near their home, and they are staying with her daughter in Kamloops. The couple still haven’t received any money after registering with the province for emergency assistance. And they doubt a new $2,000 payment administered by the Red Cross will go very far in this crisis.
But they still consider themselves fortunate.
Last week, three nearby homes were swept away. Two households survived, Ms. Varcoe-Ryan said, but one woman is still missing from the third despite helicopter searches of the area, which has been cut off from hydroelectric and cellphone services.
The RCMP have confirmed they are investigating the woman’s disappearance. The number of people confirmed killed or missing in the floods has risen to six, with four bodies recovered from a mudslide along Highway 99 near Lillooet and one man still missing.
On Wednesday, wind and rainfall warnings blanketed most of the West Coast. Environment Canada said a “parade of storms” was expected to sweep over areas of the province still struggling to recover from last week’s flooding.
Mr. Farnworth said B.C. remains in “uncharted territory” and cautioned that even routine rainfall may cause already swollen rivers to rise to dangerous levels. He urged residents in flood-prone areas to prepare for evacuations and watch for updates.
“These are complicated and dynamic times,” he said.
However, he said the government is also making headway on recovery efforts, with supply chains stabilizing, gas shortages starting to ease and some evacuees allowed to return to their homes.
The centre that monitors the province’s waterways said several atmospheric rivers will drench B.C., dropping as much as 70 millimetres of rain over the Fraser Valley, including Abbotsford, by Thursday and even more over Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. The statement from the River Forecast Centre said another storm will arrive Saturday and that “additional storms are expected early next week,’’ although the amount and severity of rainfall is still being determined.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said at a separate briefing Wednesday that the breaches to his community’s main dike system are about 90 per cent repaired and the work should be completed by Thursday. A boil-water advisory was issued for the massive Sumas Prairie, where pools deeper than two metres could be filled with “hazardous and potentially toxic material,” Mr. Braun added.
“We are as ready as we can be,” he said of the anticipated precipitation.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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