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Streets are broken or buried, homes are caked in mud and some utilities aren’t fully functional yet – but for those allowed to come home, it’s a start. Reporter Nancy Macdonald and photographer Artur Gajda survey the damage

Merritt, B.C., as it looked on Nov. 24, nine days after the city of 7,000 was evacuated. The 'atmospheric river' that hit B.C. overwhelmed Merritt's infrastructure, but 1,500 or so people have come home in the first of a three-stage return plan.Photography by Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

Merritt looks like it was hit by an earthquake, not a flood. Wasted, toppled vehicles lay buried in six feet of sand. Downed telephone poles lie criss-crossed in the silt, like a giant’s chopsticks. Two streets appear to no longer exist. Outbuildings were ripped from their foundations and hurtled downstream by the raging Coldwater River, frothing last week with primal madness.

Only now that the flood has finally receded can the full scope of the catastrophe register.

It all began early in the morning of Nov. 15, when the Coldwater – which runs through Merritt before joining the Nicola River – spilled its banks, flooding homes, businesses and infrastructure.

The entire city of 7,000 was ordered out. City officials ran through the town, knocking on doors. “Get out! You need to get out!,” residents say they shouted.

But some say they were not given a warning.

Dustin and Pat O’Toole.

At 5 that morning, Dustin O’Toole was awoken with a start to the sound of shattering glass and rushing water. Surging floodwaters had broken a window in the basement of his home on Douglas Street, beside Diamond Vale Elementary School. As water began filling the cellar where he sleeps, Mr. O’Toole roused his mom, then packed her and his dog into his truck. He managed to steer through Merritt’s pitch-black streets, water washing over his hood.

The O’Toole family lost “everything,” he says: “Water filled the basement to the roof. It came up two feet on the main floor.” Only the paintings and those items on countertops – like their china and their TV – survived.

Last Wednesday, two days after the incident, Mr. O’Toole and his older brother Pat were shovelling slimy mud into wheelbarrows, then dumping it into an oozing, dark brown pile outside. An exposed crack in the foundation of the tidy blue home suggests the family will not be able to rebuild. But by putting one foot in front of the other and trying to fix what seems irreparably broken, the brothers are behaving the way humans so often do in these circumstances.

Their mom is a “nervous wreck,” says Pat. They’re just trying to get her to smile again.

Like so many others in town, the O’Tooles recently learned that their insurance will not cover flood damage. “We’re on our own,” Pat says, as he pushes the heavy, heaving barrow down the slippery, mud-soaked two-by-four serving as a ramp from the front door.

MERRITT’S RETURN HOME PLAN

The City of Merritt has announced a three-phase plan to allow residents to come back

MERRITT’S RETURN HOME PLAN

The City of Merritt has announced a three-phase plan to allow residents to come back

PHASE ONE

PHASE ONE

8

5A

Highway 5A

Coldwater

River

PHASE TWO

PHASE TWO

Merritt

5

PHASE THREE

PHASE THREE

0

1

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF MERRITT

MERRITT’S RETURN HOME PLAN

The City of Merritt has announced a three-phase plan to allow residents to come back

MERRITT’S RETURN HOME PLAN

The City of Merritt has announced a three-phase plan to allow residents to come back

PHASE ONE

PHASE ONE

8

5A

Highway 5A

Coldwater

River

PHASE TWO

PHASE TWO

Merritt

5

PHASE THREE

PHASE THREE

0

1

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF MERRITT

MERRITT’S RETURN HOME PLAN

The City of Merritt has announced a three-phase plan to allow residents to come back

PHASE ONE

Nicola

River

8

5A

Highway 5A

Coldwater

River

PHASE TWO

Merritt

5

PHASE THREE

0

1

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; CITY OF MERRITT

When the Coldwater River breached its banks, the force of the water was so powerful it carved a new channel through the nearby neighbourhood of Collettville, the hardest-hit area. The city is temporarily rerouting the river. But water does what it wants to do, and permanently moving the river’s new branch may not be possible, city officials have said.

For the first time this week, some 1,500 Merrittonians were allowed to return their homes. Mayor Linda Brown warned returnees that there is no hospital, no services and the tap water isn’t safe to drink. It is not yet known whether everyone survived the flash flood, she has said.

At least 700 residences and three schools were damaged by flood waters. Some 1,100 of the district’s 2,400 students have been told they will not be returning to in-class learning anytime soon.

As of Nov. 24, two gas stations and a grocery store had opened, but restaurants and most other retailers remain closed. Only the Chevron had fuel.

The smell of muddy water hung heavy in the air. At least a half dozen homes have red signs taped to their doors, meaning they are unsafe to even enter. The city’s empty streets felt eerie. The Coldwater has torn up lives, not just landscapes.


Satellite images from before the floods (Nov. 10) and after (Nov. 16) show some of Merritt's hardest-hit neighbourhoods. In the Nov. 16 image, the brown water and mud of the Coldwater River stands out in a landscape covered with fresh snow. Satellite images provided by Planet Labs.

Bikes lie partly buried in mud. Mudslides washed out parts of the highways that lead to Merritt, and also severed the major road and rail networks connecting the Interior with B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

When the floods came, the water inundated two of Merritt's bridges across the Coldwater River and blocked access to a third. Days later, roads were a shambles. The Coldwater carved a new branch through the neighbourhood of Collettville.

Floodwaters overwhelmed the local wastewater-treatment plant. Taps are flowing again, but returnees have been advised to boil their water.

Temperatures plunged below freezing after Merritt's deluge. When The Globe and Mail visited, some muddy footprints had been filled with ice crystals.

Family photos and other items lie in debris around town. Some of the families who lost everything might be eligible for B.C. disaster assistance or special emergency funds of $2,000 the province is offering in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross.

In many parts of southern B.C.'s agricultural heartland, such as Abbotsford, farmers had to race against time to transport cattle to safety when the waters rose.

Paul Thompson checks on his chickens. There is no complete tally of how many birds were killed in B.C.'s floods, but it is likely in the thousands.

Mr. Thompson surveys his home after the flood. For those who have been allowed to return to Merritt so far, conditions are spartan. Merrittonians are asked to use as little water as possible so that firefighters have enough.

Returnees can count themselves lucky if they come home to a yellow sign on the door saying the property has been inspected and deemed safe. Others have red signs saying 'do not enter or occupy.'

Journals and photo albums are left out to dry at the Nicoletteville ranch. Mayor Linda Brown has warned returnees to expect a different Merritt than the one they remember: 'What you are coming home to is a city that’s changed,' she wrote on the city's website.

As the city works to restore the sewage-treatment system, the military has helped to shore up dikes that guard against future floods. For towns like Merritt, getting infrastructure ready for extreme weather is a long-term challenge in a climate that's changing due to greenhouse gas emissions.



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 situation on the ground in Abbotsford, part of B.C.’s agricultural heartland, and what impact it will have on the food supply. Subscribe for more episodes.

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