Efforts to help B.C. residents impacted by devastating flooding, landslides ramping up

It has been nearly two weeks since a deluge of rain and landslides battered parts of the lower mainland in British Columbia, but as the clean-up effort ramps up the need for support is growing.

Stan Vander Waal, president of the B.C. Agriculture Council and owner of Rainbow Greenhouses Inc., spoke with CityNews from Chilliwack and discussed how farms in the Sumas Prairie (east of Abbotsford) have been particularly impacted. He said farmers in the region he spoke with reported receiving varying water levels with some reporting up to nine feet.

“Literally places that had no water they’d come back three hours later and they had up to three feet of standing water in there. You can’t possibly move quick enough to get your animals out of there fast enough,” he said, adding he heard about instances of cows and chickens getting stuck in water.

“I do not recall ever getting this much rain.”

While it’s still early and the losses are still being tallied, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries said a preliminary estimate provided by the B.C. Dairy Association found approximately 500 out of 23,000 cattle in the Fraser Valley died during the floods. There are concerns there could be more animal deaths stemming from health-related flooding issues.

RELATED: Storms headed for B.C. as province grapples with last week’s destructive weather

It was on Nov. 13 when an atmospheric river, a weather phenomenon typically seen on the Pacific coast that involves a long band of moisture extending from tropics or sub-tropics that brings warm, moist air, moved into the region and over the course of a couple of days hundreds of millimetres of precipitation fell.

In Hope, B.C., Environment and Climate Change Canada reported the community experienced an all-time single-day record of 174 millimetres of rain and more than 250 millimetres over two days. The town typically sees around 300 millimetres in the average November, which is normally the wettest month of the year in the province. So far it was reported there have been more than 400 millimetres of precipitation.

Vander Waal said after a few short days of rain, it translated to substantial flooding that resulted in highways closing and grocery stores emptying as residents flocked to stock up on items. He said one of the biggest challenges tied to the recent weather is the impact it has had on essential rail and road links to the rest of B.C. and Canada.

“We’re (Vander Waal’s business) flower growers, it’s the time of the year where Christmas poinsettias are going out to the stores. We had a whole week of nothing being shipped, that’s over 50 trailer loads of flowers that just stayed parked here and didn’t go to any stores,” he said, noting his business services more than 300 stores.

However, connections are slowly opening up but the network is diminished. Using an example of hauling plants to the Okanagan Valley east, he said there are normally three highway routes and now there is just one.

RELATED: Highway 1 through Abbotsford to open at 2 p.m. Thursday

“We’re almost running truck convoys through these areas on narrow, small roads to simply get to the destination. But along the way, I saw the destruction to the roads themselves and I think British Columbia is in for the challenge of its life when it comes down to the major transportation arteries,” Vander Waal said.

“We had both CP and CN rail, the major rail lines supporting the ports and all of British Columbia and all of Canada, totally cut off from the country for a full week.”

There was additional progress on Thursday as the Trans-Canada highway was set to open in the afternoon. But additional rainfall looms in the coming days, prompting concerns about setbacks.

“Unfortunately there’s still a lot more wet weather coming ahead,” Bobby Sekhon, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in Vancouver, told CityNews, adding rainfall warnings are in effect and a further 80 millimetres could hit parts of the Fraser Valley.

“It’s extremely concerning. We’ve had devastating impacts already from the heavy rainfall that we’ve seen this month, there’s more heavy rain coming, this is not a good situation and this is something that we’re going to have to manage through and hopefully we can get through safely.”

Emergency supports for residents arriving in communities

Elysia Dempsey, the director of emergency management for B.C. and Yukon at the Canadian Red Cross, and her team have been working for nearly two weeks and she said the weather system in mid-November impacted response efforts.

“All of a sudden my phone went down. I mean here we are we’re used to working in a virtual environment, I’m working out of my kitchen at home here, and all of sudden I’m not able to access and communicate with the rest of my organization and colleagues. It had huge impacts for organizations and agencies to respond,” she recalled during an interview with CityNews.

“This one is pretty devastating in terms of impacts and I think partially because we’ve been operating in a COVID context it’s just these compounding disasters and scenarios we’re working within, and this flooding in particular – for me anyways I’ve been in this role for about 14 years – this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

RELATED: Flooding hits Princeton as residents rush to save property

Dempsey said Red Cross personnel are on the ground to help connect affected residents, many of whom were forced from their homes due to damage and evacuation orders, with food and shelter. She also said the agency is distributing clean-up kits to residents. In partnership with the Government of Canada, the Red Cross is providing $2,000 to households impacted.

In Toronto on Thursday, staff and volunteers at GlobalMedic, a charity that provides disaster and humanitarian relief, are working to put together clean-up kits, non-perishable food kits and hygiene kits for residents. They are also working to provide free wash-and-fold laundry services too.

When it comes to the recent events in B.C., spokesperson Jamie Cross told CityNews the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted logistical planning along with reduced transportation options.

“We’re a disaster response agency so we’re always kind of primed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, but I think a lot of people were caught off guard. You saw that with the number of people who were stranded in a number of different areas because the roads went out so quickly,” she said.

Ways to help residents in British Columbia

The following entities are collecting donations to help those affected by flooding and landslides:

Canadian Red Cross
United Way British Columbia
B.C. Agriculture Council

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