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Debbie Gauvin, a Princeton, B.C., flood evacuee, sits on her bed watching videos at a motel in Penticton.Caillum Smith/The Globe and Mail

For months, Brittaney Freeman has lived in a near constant state of anxiety. She and her eight-year-old son are among thousands of people forced from their communities by catastrophic flooding across much of southern B.C. in November.

Hundreds are still stuck in hotels and motels, or couch-surfing in distant towns, desperate to get back into their homes.

Before the floods, Ms. Freeman, who works as a nursing-home care aide, had been living in Princeton, a town of 2,800 people where the Tulameen and Similkameen rivers meet.

About 300 residents were forced to leave in the aftermath, says Princeton mayor Spencer Coyne, and, like Ms. Freeman, they haven’t been able to move back. “Ten per cent of our population can’t live in their homes right now,” he says.

Princeton officials have struggled to find ways to bring their flood diaspora back – even if only to temporary accommodations – so they can begin to repair their homes and lives. But without the funding the town needs, and a shortage of affordable housing, there is no swift and clear plan for evacuees to return. Mr. Coyne worries some never will.

“If you are not in the community, you can’t go fix your house, you can’t go to work … So you really lose that connection with where you’re from,” Mr. Coyne told The Globe. “What happens then, is some people just give up and leave. I don’t think that is acceptable either.”

Mr. Coyne says a plan to install 100 trailers – each with a bedroom, kitchenette and bathroom – in a local industrial park had been in the works since Nov. 28, but died on a bureaucratic vine. He says $800,000 was needed to install electricity, sewer and water lines for the trailers – money the town doesn’t have.

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

Princeton’s annual budget is just under $3-million. Without federal help to cover damages, Mr. Coyne worries council will either have to drain a cash reserve for a future amenity, or a hefty property tax could be ahead for residents. That could drive even more residents away permanently.

“We need assistance from the provincial government or the federal government, whichever one wants to step up and help us,” he says.

In late February, the Red Cross said it provided $18-million in financial assistance for alternative accommodations and basic needs, along with recovery services such as counselling, to 7,400 households in B.C. Roughly 450 households are still receiving assistance. Although the agency is working to shift people out of temporary accommodations by March 31, a spokesperson said supports will continue beyond that as needed, including mental-health services and money for residents to spend on repairs, reconstruction and property cleanup.

The recently announced B.C. budget promised $925-million to address the fallout from last year’s devastating heat dome, forest fires and flooding. Most of that – $800-million – will be for flood recovery, shared among local governments to provide disaster support to thousands of homeowners who were unable to obtain overland flood insurance.

Progress, however, has been glacially slow, says Mr. Coyne. The federal government has pledged $5-billion in aid, but when that money will arrive is not clear. As of last week, provincial officials say, it had not yet started flowing.

“Everybody is telling me that … the flooding was the impact of global warming,” says Mr. Coyne. “My question then is, if this is global warming, then where is our help from the federal government? Because they are the ones that make the big rules. And a little town like mine isn’t going to take on global warming by itself.”

Residents scattered by the flooding more than three months ago can’t wait indefinitely.

Prior to November, Ms. Freeman and her son had been living in a small two-bedroom home rented from the Princeton and District Community Services Society (PDCSS). It had taken her six months to find somewhere she could afford – the town has been struggling with a housing vacancy rate under one per cent.

Ms. Freeman felt fortunate their first floor was spared in the flood, but muddy water gushed into the basement, ruining the furnace, water heater and electrical panel.

To escape, Ms. Freeman and her son hurried down a wheelchair ramp that wraps around the side of the house. In darkness, they waded through chest-high water to reach their Honda CR-V, which was parked on somewhat higher ground. As Ms. Freeman opened the SUV’s doors to drive away to her parent’s house, water sloshed in.

They couldn’t stay at her parents’ place long-term – it was already overcrowded with relatives. But her home was unlivable, and there was nowhere else to go in Princeton. So the provincial Emergency Support Services agency sent Ms. Freeman and her son 115 km east, to a Sandman Hotel in Penticton.

There was only a hot plate for cooking, and a bar fridge. They washed their dishes in the bathtub. Once Highway 3 reopened, driving her son back to Princeton for school each day was almost a 1.5-hour trip each way, which cost her at least $120 a week in gas.

Ms. Freeman hoped to return to her Princeton house in a few months. But in February, PDCSS mailed Ms. Freeman a notice informing her she was going to be evicted in May anyway, because they needed her house for an employee. To address a severe staffing shortage, a caretaker is being moved into Ms. Freeman’s home in order to cover the night shift at a PDCSS assisted-living building across the street.

The PDCSS office itself was also damaged by Princeton’s flooding, and may be condemned.

“It has been absolutely awful,” says Becky Vermette, the PDCSS executive director. “We don’t have any place to work from and staff are trying to hold things together, working from home.” Key staff, she says, including management, also lost their homes.

Still, says Ms. Freeman, “it just seems so wrong. That’s not what they should kick me out for,” she says. “I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to figure out what I’m going to do – in the middle of a pandemic, a natural disaster and a housing crisis?”

In late January, Ms. Freeman decided to move into a rental house with her boyfriend on an acreage near Keremeos, which is only about a 45-minute drive from Princeton. She still hopes to make it back to Princeton one day, but the odds are low. The average housing price in the province climbed 22 per cent this past year.

Catastrophic flooding has further exacerbated housing crises in B.C.’s Southern Interior

In the Flamingo Motel, just off Penticton’s noisy main street, Debbie Gauvin, 65, is also waiting for any news about when – or if – she can return to her home in Princeton. Her apartment was in one of two affordable-housing buildings for independent seniors and people with disabilities, also operated by PDCSS. Both buildings are now uninhabitable and likely to be written off because of flood damage.

Like Ms. Freeman, Ms. Gauvin also spent time at the Sandman after her evacuation. She stayed there until Dec. 15, when her emergency support ran out and she relocated to the Flamingo, where she’s paying $900 a month out of her CPP and Old Age pension. Stuck in Penticton without a car, she spends much of her days alone in her motel room, sitting up in bed, watching YouTube on her laptop. She says she’s gotten hooked on channels featuring natural-disaster news, and can spout off locations of all the latest volcanoes and tsunamis. “It gives me perspective,” she says, but of course she sees the parallels.

“I totally feel like a climate refugee,” she says. “I feel really helpless.”

The clock is ticking for her – she has to move out of the Flamingo by the end of April, when their seasonal rates go up.

Even Princeton residents who own homes instead of rent aren’t certain whether they will return.

Homeowners Flavia and Sycra Yasin moved to Princeton from Vancouver in 2016 and bought a two-bedroom unit in a quadruplex – the first home they’ve owned.

On the evening of Nov. 14, as the intense rain poured down, the Yasins went to check the river levels. They walked atop one of the dikes protecting the town.

“It was so squishy, I was like, it’s going to flood!” says Mrs. Yasin.

They rushed home to grab their three cats, drove to higher ground and spent the night together in their car. The next night, with the town awash in shock and confusion, they stayed at the Riverside Community Centre, crowded with other flood victims. They were then evacuated to the Coast Capri Hotel in Kelowna, 165 km from Princeton, and they haven’t left. Every two weeks, they reapply to the Red Cross for continued assistance to pay the hotel bill.

Mrs. Yasin, an artist who trained as a clinical psychologist before she emigrated from Romania, says she’s needed therapy for anxiety due to all the uncertainty about their living situation.

Unlike many homes in Princeton, theirs was insured for overland flooding, but the lower floor was ruined and it’s been difficult to oversee repair work from two hours away. They’re not sure what they’ll do after their home is restored.

Even though the dikes along the Tulameen River have now been strengthened and heightened, Mrs. Yasin has little faith in them. “We have seen dikes fail. And our trust of the idea of a dike has been shattered,” she says.

Selling a house situated on a flood plain would also be difficult.

“It’s not like our house has moved,” says Mrs. Yasin. “We are still in the low elevation. If a flood hits again, we will still be in the way of it.”

And, she adds, forest fires are a growing problem – one came terrifyingly close to town last summer.

She says that the “trauma is ingrained,” and she knows lots of families who have left Princeton for good.

“Princeton is a wounded town.”

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