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Environment

Stories from the Deluge

We’re collecting accounts of flood survival from Tyee readers and the wider public. We’ll be adding them here as they roll in.

By andrea bennett and Amanda Follett Hosgood 17 Nov 2021 | TheTyee.ca

andrea bennett is an editor with The Tyee and the author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp), a CBC Books’ pick for the top Canadian non-fiction of the year, and one of Autostraddle’s best queer books of 2020.

Tell us your stories of surviving the disaster. Share your questions you’d like to see our reporters chase. (You can do both by emailing editor [at] thetyee.ca.) And check in here regularly as we add accounts from our readers and other members of the public about their ordeals triggered by the atmospheric river that has crushed much of the province under its downpours.

Last Sunday, torrential rains pelted much of southern B.C., with 100 to 200 millimetres of rain falling in the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island. Cities like Hope and Chilliwack experienced record-setting amounts of rain, leading to flooding, road washouts and evacuations.

Approximately 7,000 people were evacuated from Merritt as the Coldwater River flooded. Helicopter rescues began for people stuck on the highway between mudslides near Agassiz.

In Abbotsford, occupants of 629 residences were ordered to evacuate as the Sumas Prairie — which was, a century ago before its draining, a lake the Sumas First Nation relied on for fishing and hunting — filled with water. Farmers and rescue personnel struggled to rescue cows and chickens stuck in the floodwaters.

At a 9 p.m. press conference held Tuesday, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun warned that the Barrowtown pump station, which pumps water out of what used to be Sumas Lake, could fail. Over 180 residents stranded by flooding were rescued by boat and helicopter.

Over 150 Abbotsford staff and volunteers worked overnight to build a dam to keep rising waters from the Nooksack River from overwhelming the pump station. For now, the city has been spared from additional catastrophic flooding.

Meanwhile, a large fire broke out at an RV Centre in Abbotsford, sending toxic plumes of smoke into the sky over the flooded prairie.

The stories below have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Yasmin Andricevic and her two children flew over a landslide west of Hope on their way to Pitt Meadows. Photos by Yasmin Andricevic.

Yasmin Andricevic, airlifted from Hope to Pitt Meadows

We were coming back to Burnaby from seeing my husband’s sister, who lives in Kelowna. We left around 10 a.m. on Sunday thinking we’d be back early afternoon, in time for the kids to get ready for school on Monday.

About 50 kilometres from Hope, all the cars were stopped. It was dark and the rain was torrential. All the water was just spilling off the mountain.

When we got to Hope it was completely dark because of a power outage. The whole town was just black. We didn’t really know what was happening, but cars were turning around. There were no hotels in the area. We called a few but nobody was answering. My neighbour sent me her sister’s friend Tracy’s phone number. My husband Mark and I just kind of looked at each other at about 10 p.m. and we said, “OK, let’s call a stranger and ask her to take in our family.”

Tracy was truly an angel. We walked in and I’m sure I started crying. She had a spare room set up for us. We thought we would just get up early and leave.

It hit us all Monday morning just how bad it was. We woke up early, checked the news, and then heard about the landslides and people getting trapped. It was very scary with the heat and the power going out, not knowing what was happening with the road. Lots of rumours, no formal information.

Lots of people were hanging out at the gas station waiting for the power to come on so they could gas up when the road opened. No grocery stores were open. No restaurants were open. That lent to a lot more anxiety.

We spent Sunday night and Monday night at Tracy’s house. Two other couples were there and they both managed to get helicopter flights out. So I put out the bat call to my whole network — come on network, help me out. So many people were calling helicopter companies on my behalf, trying to find a way to get us out. And one of those connections came through.

When we left, we weren’t sure if Mark would be able to get out. We just needed to get the kids out of there, and so I got the kids and I on something. It was really hard. I can’t really even think about it too hard right now. Because it was just one of those moments where you’re a parent, you do what you need to do, and you can’t let yourself think emotionally about what could happen. I don’t think they really realized that we were in an emergency situation until we had to say goodbye to Mark.

The helicopter took us to Pitt Meadows and we flew over the landside. We realized that we were probably 10 kilometers from the slide. We were so close to it.

I was so relieved to be home last night with the kids. Neighbours had filled our fridge and cupboards with food. My brother had sent dinner to arrive at our doorstep. I felt so much relief. And then Mark was able to find a flight this morning.

We’re both just processing it all. It could have been really bad. We’re so lucky.

Footage of Abbotsford fire, which burned early Wednesday. Video by Melissa Vermeer.

Melissa Vermeer, Abbotsford

We’re up on Sumas Mountain. We’re close to where the gong show is happening. The view from my house is still a giant lake where it’s supposed to be a farmer’s field. The water has gone down a little bit but there’s still so much water that you can see waves when a gust of wind comes. We can also see giant black clouds of smoke from the RV dealership burning right next door. So many brand-new trailers are just all on fire. We can hear the popping sounds of their gas tanks exploding still. If we were to drive, it’d be about five minutes away from us. I can see the fire right now from my window.

Last night, we were a little unnerved because we got a report that people at the bottom of the mountain were being evacuated. That’s just three minutes away from us. We’re just lucky that we’re up high.

The mayor’s conference call last night was very, very clear on everything. And it actually made us all feel a little bit better, especially since he did another conference call this morning because he was a lot more optimistic. Everybody’s nervous about the pumps failing. Because what I learned is apparently all used to be a lake, so this is Mother Nature trying to take it back, I guess. Communication has been okay, as long as you’re on social media — but if you’re not on that, you’re not really in the loop.

Everyone’s back to panic-buying, so the grocery store is all empty.

Our plan, if we have to evacuate — me and my husband and my two boys, who are 10 and 12, and our dog and cat — is, if worst comes to worst, take our RV trailer over to the Walmart parking lot. But I think we’re okay. We were on alert for a little bit for landslides because we’re so high on the mountain. But now that the rain has stopped, we’re not so much in danger of that anymore.

We just got word last night that, for the rest of the week anyway, it’s back to virtual learning.

We’ve got binoculars, and we’re high enough we can see it all. There’s been people going back and forth on boats on the highway. It’s weird. It feels like a war zone. Honestly, helicopters have been flying by our house about every 10 minutes. And now they’re now telling us we shouldn’t go outside right now because it’s toxic smoke in the air from the RV fire.

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Photo from Melissa Vermeer’s balcony on Wednesday morning.

Enda Brophy, displaced in Hope

We left Kelowna to head back to the Lower Mainland around 1 o’clock on Sunday. We’d seen the weather advisories. We’ve been through so many weather advisories over the last month that we thought, you know, it’s not great but it’ll be okay.

This was the first time we had been to Kelowna since 2014. It was our first fun weekend without our kids for two years. We don’t do road trips too often. This one was poorly timed, that’s for sure.

We left Kelowna aiming to take the Coquihalla and saw that it was closed. At that point, we decided to go north and try and get on Highway 1. We drove on the Nicola Highway to Lytton. We tried to get on the number 1, but by the time we got there, the number 1 was closed. The weather was still okay, so we decided that we would try and drive south and travel that way. We went through Princeton. By the time we were about an hour from Princeton, the weather got really bad very quickly. And there was very slow-moving traffic into Princeton, and the visibility was really reduced. We were hearing that the number 1 was closed, but the number 7 was still open. We got a quick bite to eat in Princeton and got back on the road.

That drive between Princeton and Hope was really the most terrifying drive I’ve ever done in my life. It was white knuckle. The rain was really coming down. There were cars on the side of the road. There were points in the highway where water was streaming across. There were other points where it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Visibility was incredibly diminished.

We were also noticing that there was zero cell phone reception. We weren’t able to really find out what was happening ahead of us. That was utterly terrifying. We managed, thank goodness, to make it to Hope. The turnoff for Highway 1 was obviously closed. We were told that Highway 7 had been closed 45 minutes in advance of our arrival. We were thinking it was terrible luck that we didn’t make it onto the 7, and then the sobering realization came the next day when we heard what had happened on the number 7. We didn’t know the extent of the closures. We didn’t know the extent of the damage. We hadn’t imagined that people had lost their lives. My heart goes out to those people.

We went to a gas station and filled up in Hope. We had some food. We slept in the parking lot of a strip mall close to, ironically, a road called Flood Hope Road. We had a decent night. We slept in the car. In the morning, we got a little bit of breakfast. And then that day, it was just continuing to rain and we kept waiting for it to stop raining and it kept raining and raining and raining and raining. I’d never seen anything like it. And we were trying to follow what was going on again, but the internet was not great. And frankly, the CBC coverage was just not acceptable, like the fact that they cut away to a national news show, in the middle of a local disaster, was just unbelievable. They played Q, the arts and culture show, in like late morning. I was trying to figure out whether I could get home to see my children and they’ve got interviews with pop artists. It was unreal. Anyway, what we pieced together was that we weren’t going anywhere.

We slept in the shelter last night. Locals have been taking families in, which is incredibly heartening to see. The whole local response has been just tremendously uplifting to observe. The spirit of the shelter is just outstanding to be a part of. The people who are working at the shelter are incredibly giving and organized and generous, even they don’t have the resources that they need. The first night, people were sleeping on the floor in the shelter without a whole lot of bedding other than what people were dropping off during the day.

I’ve heard, via the CBC, that there are about 1,200 displaced people sheltering in Hope. That sounds right, given what I have seen so far.

Our kids are seven and nine. My mom and her husband had stepped in to take care of them over the weekend. When it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to come back, we got in touch with family and friends in Vancouver, and have been really moved by the way our community has mobilized. They’re gonna be taking turns giving the kids playdates after school to take the pressure off. We’re feeling very lucky that we have a good supportive community. It accentuates the importance of local networks of care, especially during times of disasters.


MORE ACCOUNTS TO COME. Keep checking here for updates. The Tyee is speaking with residents of B.C. affected by the flooding and mudslides. Have a story? Email us at editor [at] thetyee.ca.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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