A year ago, a tidal wave of rain lashed British Columbia. Landslides and swollen rivers destroyed highways and, when inadequate dikes failed, a large swath of the Fraser Valley was flooded.
The inundation ranks among the worst in the province’s history, alongside the floods of 1894 and 1948. Those disasters opened up short windows of political will to rebuild and better gird for the future.
That was the hope last year, too, as the waters receded, but the task is more complicated now. Defences need not only to be rebuilt and improved from substandard conditions but also bolstered for an era of climate heating in which extreme storms will be more common.
Change, however, has been slow to emerge. Look at one small example in Vancouver – far from the most serious but a symbol of the situation. When the storms hit last November, a barge became unmoored in English Bay. There were fears it could crash into a bridge but instead the 1.5-million-kilogram vessel lodged itself on the shore. And there it sat; it could not be moved so it was instead, eventually, dismantled. It took until this month, a year later, for the work to be finished.
Recovery times in general have been extended. It took a year to reopen Highway 8, a rural route that had been destroyed in several dozen places. The old Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, which has been patched up, won’t be fully repaired until 2024. The four-lane Coquihalla highway, the main connection between Vancouver and the rest of Canada, saw various bridges lost and numerous sections damaged. It was closed to regular traffic for two months, and permanent repairs are supposed to be finished this winter.
Preparing for future floods remains under discussion. Last month, the provincial government put out an “intentions paper” – an outline of the problems and possible solutions. It is the precursor to a provincial flood strategy later next year, further planning into 2024, and “implementation” between 2024 and 2030.
This initial paper contains a lot of what’s necessary, because what’s necessary is already widely known and well chronicled in previous reports. Ahead of the flood last year, there had been multiple warnings. The refrain was always the same: Many dikes were substandard, in disrepair and likely wouldn’t hold up against a deluge. And that’s what happened.
A key element going forward is leadership. In the early 2000s, the province, led then by the centre-right BC Liberals, mostly got out of direct oversight of flooding. But cities proved to be poorly equipped, and without the funds, to fill the gap. The province has indicated it will reassert its role but the details aren’t settled.
Other proposed actions include up-to-date flood maps, stronger dike regulations and improved storm forecasting. There’s the issue of “orphan” dikes, which number more than 100 and are overseen by no one. Beyond flood defences, there are decisions about getting out of the way – “flood avoidance” – such as making room for rivers to expand and contract.
There are also tricky bilateral issues. The 2021 flood happened in part because of the Nooksack River, south of the border, and long-standing questions remain unsettled.
Costs – whether for recovery or investments in mitigation – are counted in the billions of dollars. Ottawa, through a stretched program for disaster recovery funding, will pay out $3.5-billion to cover damages in B.C., most of the total bill. That’s a daunting figure, but so is the cost of being better prepared. Abbotsford, an hour east of Vancouver, saw the worst flooding. The city has plans for dikes and pump stations that could cost more than $2-billion, but it may be years before anything is built.
Spending today, however, can pay off tomorrow. The intentions report cites an analysis that suggests every $1-million in public money invested in flood resilience in the 2020s and 2030s will save at least $7-million in “avoided flood damage and recovery costs” in the 2040s through the 2060s.
What’s more worrisome is that while last year was bad, it could have been worse, if a large Fraser River or coastal flood had occurred. A report in 2016 urged preventative measures, given “the chilling cost of inaction.”
This November in B.C. has been drier than normal, but big storms are certain to smash the province again. Its state of readiness needs to be strengthened as quickly as possible.