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Surviving Disaster Is Just the First Hurdle

BC has long faced ‘gaps’ in emergency aid that compound the nightmare. Evacuees told us what needs fixing. A Tyee special report.

Francesca Fionda 20 Apr 2023The Tyee

Francesca Fionda is an investigative reporter and regular contributor at The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @FrancescaFionda.

The government of British Columbia has known for decades that the current system to support evacuees isn’t working for big disasters.

Twenty years ago, summer wildfires forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. The province ordered a review that learned evacuees found the response system overly complicated, inequitable and lengthy. The report called on the province to streamline and simplify so people fleeing from disaster can have their basic needs met during “an already stressful time.”

There were years to prepare before 2017 claimed the title of “one of the worst wildfire seasons,” in B.C.’s history. An estimated 65,000 people were evacuated and offered emergency support services and a record 1.2 million hectares of land burned. While some improvements were made, a government review flagged that support for evacuees came “close to failure.” In 2017, the problems included a lack of capacity, planning, governance and public awareness.

There were warnings that without improvements the current system would be hard pressed to help big numbers of people during a “catastrophic event.”

Then came the province’s longest provincial state of emergency with COVID, heat-domes, fires and floods of 2021.

“There was nobody providing information about emergency services,” said Donna Rae after escaping the atmospheric river in Merritt. “Nobody knew what was going on. It was just chaos.”

The ordeal was just beginning. Parts of Merritt were on evacuation for more than 200 days until June 8, 2022. And even now residents like Rae are working to make their residences livable.

Rae moved to Merritt about five years ago after life in Vancouver grew too expensive for the 72-year-old pensioner. Her plan was to enjoy retirement in her small house a short stroll from the Coldwater River.

The torrent brought by an atmospheric river filled Rae’s home with water and mud. It would be weeks before Rae could access her property to see what survived. It took months more for her to navigate how to get financial help for repairs. The structure of her house withstood the flooding but the insides were wrecked. Rae was still rebuilding her home, and life, when we visited.

Over the past year, The Tyee and the Climate Disaster Project spoke with Rae and over a dozen more disaster survivors. Many told us that in the few days after a crisis hit it was too hard to get reliable information about finding support. And that later it was difficult to learn what condition homes were in and reasons their access was restricted.

Survivors also said that as their displacement and rebuilds dragged on they faced deep emotional and financial strains. But there are too many bureaucratic hurdles, waits for support are long, and how financial assistance is given out and can be used is burdensome and restrictive.

Part of what needs fixing is a basic assumption about how long people are displaced. As reported previously in this series, data analyzed by The Tyee shows that over the last six years, disaster survivors were out of home on average for approximately 22 days. And many much longer. The village of Lytton remains on an evacuation order over 650 days after it burned.

But provincial government supports are primarily set up to help evacuees for the first 72-hours after a disaster, even though experts warn of more intense and more frequent climate events that will force people from their homes for weeks, months or even years.

It’s a reality acknowledged by the B.C. minister responsible for emergency response, Bowinn Ma. We interviewed Ma as part of our investigation into what the province has done to close gaps — and what’s left to do given that B.C. is “disproportionately impacted” by climate disasters, according to Premier David Eby.

Survivors’ first stop: volunteers and vouchers

A key first refuge for evacuees are reception centres operated via Emergency Support Services, a provincial program meant to provide people with basic needs shortly after an emergency. (A glossary of organizations named in this piece runs as a sidebar.)

At reception centres, displaced people can register and receive support. Evacuees might receive etransfers or vouchers with specific amounts they can use at specific suppliers in exchange for food, lodging, clothing and incidentals.

Emergency Support Services operates via a variety of local authorities and First Nations. The programs it offers are designed to be managed and implemented by volunteers. In fact, it’s not uncommon for reception centres to rely on volunteers that might be affected or evacuated by the very disasters they are responding to.

Many evacuees we spoke with expressed their gratitude for the volunteer help they received. Deborah Jones-Middleton has organized training opportunities for hundreds of volunteers. She’s the founder of the Network of Emergency Support Services Teams, or NESST. The society has put on conferences for emergency volunteers over the last ten years.

The toll on staff and volunteers for these larger events is immense, she said. “I have a lot of compassion for them because they are the frontline.”

In small municipalities it can be really challenging to get and retain volunteers, Jones-Middleton said. In some places with limited resources and capacity, the emergency co-ordinator might also have another role like the fire chief, said Jones-Middleton. Larger communities might have more resources to provide staff with volunteers. Each regional district and community has a different model of how their Emergency Support Services programs are delivered.

Rae made it out of the flooding in Merritt with just a few items and important documents. She said she didn’t learn there was a reception centre until someone working at the liquor store told her where to go. There, Rae said she was able to get a warm coat and a voucher for groceries before landing at an acquaintance’s home.

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Deborah Jones-Middleton of Network of Emergency Support Services Teams told provincial officials she worries the volunteers are ‘well past capacity’ and set up to fail when the next climate disaster hits. Photo by Francesca Fionda.

Micha Kingston was grateful for the support she received through vouchers immediately after the Lytton fire in 2021. She and her daughter lost their apartment and almost all their belongings.

But the restrictions placed on how the vouchers could be used didn’t make any sense to Kingston. She remembers receiving a $600 voucher that had to be spent at a specific store all at once.

“I don't want to complain about having too much, but the fact that they attached the money to a certain store and a certain time frame actually made it really hard.”

Instead, a prepaid visa or credit card could have allowed her to budget out the funds over time and also spend it on replacing some items they lost, she said. The fire in Lytton was so extreme that the province extended financial support for people who lost their homes. Kingston said she was also able to get a stipend for groceries as well as less restrictive funds from the Red Cross.

“The emergency services system needs a complete overhaul,” said Lyttonite Michele Feist. She lost her home in the 2021 fires and has since moved to Williams Lake. Getting to a reception centre after a disaster can be a challenge for folks if they don’t have access to a vehicle, have limited resources to pay for gas or can’t take time off work to go during the designated hours.

When Feist arrived at the reception centre she said she was told that there were no supports available for her as she had to reach out to her insurance provider first. “Friends and family. That is the main support. Beyond that, it's sheer luck,” Feist said. “You get out with what you've got. And if you've got enough, or you can figure out how to get it, then you will. And if you don't, it's the kindness of strangers.”

Supports for stabilizing: Beyond short-term cash

The province can extend support to evacuees if the community requests it. For the Lytton fire, Emergency Support Services gave funding for lodging, food, clothing and support services from the end of June to mid-December. After December, that role was transferred to the Canadian Red Cross who is still providing a housing subsidy for people who were uninsured and lost their primary residences.

In partnership with the Canadian Red Cross, the province provided atmospheric river evacuee households $2,000. Wildfire evacuees received a direct payment of $1,200 and an additional $800 went to households that were evacuated for 10 or more days.

The Red Cross is foremost among non-governmental organizations that form a lynchpin in B.C.’s disaster support for survivors needing more than a few days’ worth.

To support people and businesses affected by the flooding events of 2021, B.C.’s Red Cross raised about $42 million in donations and received just over $83 million in federal and provincial funding.

But as of their most recent public financial report, the Canadian Red Cross had distributed or “committed” to spend just over a third of those funds or $45 million.

“What makes disaster donations different is that speed matters,” said Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada. The charity watchdog gave Red Cross Canada two out of five stars after reviewing the organization’s publicly available financial statements and program information. It found the charity had a “low demonstrated impact” with about 74 cents of every dollar donated going to a program.

“People need help quickly, rather than three years on. Canadian Red Cross and all charities that fundraise for disasters need to significantly improve their reporting and accountability.”

“It takes people who are impacted at least two years to return to their homes,” said Dean Pogas director of communications for Red Cross BC & Yukon in an email. “The Red Cross is committed to assisting individuals and families at the pace of each person’s recovery journey in the months or years ahead.”

Evacuees we spoke with shared that they were grateful for what the Red Cross provided them. But many also expressed frustrations with getting in contact with the charity or long waits on hold.

“We experienced a high volume of calls from thousands of people impacted by the 2021 BC Wildfires and/or Floods,” Pogas wrote. “We worked as quickly as possible to provide assistance to thousands of people in several communities affected by these disasters.”

The organization says that recovery can take a long time and be very complex and reviews their systems and processes on an ongoing basis.

Indigenous evacuees encounter racism, cultural barriers

Indigenous survivors of climate disasters have shared, in previous Tyee reporting, experiences of racism during evacuations and while trying to get support. They also have told of being turned away at support centres and lengthy delays for financial assistance.

A data analysis by The Tyee found that Indigenous populations in B.C. are approximately four times more likely to be evacuated than non-Indigenous populations. Colonizers forced First Nations onto reserves, many of which were in riskier and more disaster-prone areas. The federal government estimates Indigenous people living on reserves across the country are 18 times more likely to be displaced by disaster.

As a result, an inquiry by the National Collaborating Centres for Public Health stressed the “importance of prioritizing First Nations knowledge and self-determination to inform emergency plans.”

Emergency Support Services “certainly doesn't accommodate our cultural or dietary needs. It doesn't accommodate our sense of family and community,” said Tyrone McNeil, president of the Stό:lō Tribal Council and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, an organization of 31 communities working to implement a Coast Salish-led flood management strategy.

First Nations need to be given more authority and funding to provide culturally appropriate support to their communities, he said.

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Racine Jeff, who fled fires bearing down on Williams Lake in 2017, stands in still-charred nearby forests. She is glad to see her Tŝilhqot’in Nation has since set up its own emergency operations team. ‘If something like this ever happens again, we have them to rely on.’ Photo by Philip McLachlan.

Racine Jeff remembers the tumult of finding a place to stay after fleeing Williams Lake in the summer of 2017. Her family had a baby and a child with asthma and needed to get away from the smoky skies.

“There was no room in any of the motels because so many people were displaced.’ At the reception centre in Prince George, the only option was sleeping on cots, not suitable for the baby. Their next stop was Kamloops, only to be told there were no other accommodations available. Desperate for shelter, Jeff said she kept asking questions until a manager found them a place to stay at a motel in Sun Peaks and gift cards for gas so they could get there.

Looking back, Jeff said she spent hours standing in lines or waiting on the phone to explain again and again what help they needed. There has to be more support for families to ensure they can be in a safe space together, she said.

She pointed to some progress. Jeff, a member of the Tŝilhqot’in Nation, noted that since 2017, “the Tŝilhqot’in National Government has set up their own emergency operations team that is putting plans in place for floods, fires to allow for more collaboration and communication.” It’s the result of a tripartite agreement among the provincial and federal governments that recognizes the nation as a partner in emergency management. “If something like this ever happens again, we have them to rely on,” Jeff said.

Chief Joe Alphonse called the agreement “groundbreaking" when it was renewed in 2022. “We are dealing with an area twice the size of Vancouver Island, and the Tŝilhqot’in people, and all people in this area, need to know they have effective access to emergency services.”

Survivors face big repairs, bills and unknowns

Just outside of Princeton, siblings Dian and Danie Brooks are still trying to put their sky blue home across the Similkameen River back in order.

In the middle of night in mid-November 2021, they woke up to find the river had invaded their house, water soaking their ankles when they stepped out of their beds. “By the time I get dressed, the water's up to my knees. Then it's like almost up to my thighs,” Dian Brooks said.

Danie raced out to lead the horses to higher ground while Dian wrangled their dogs, cats and turtle to the second floor. The water started lapping up the stairs. They were stranded upstairs for two days with a small amount of food and water.

“I looked down and all you could see was our furniture bobbing around: very heavy oak table, chairs. You know how heavy sleeper couches are? They're just bobbing around like little toys,” said Dian. Danie made videos of the surreal scene, including this one:

WATCH: See what greeted Danie Brooks inside the home he shares with his sister Dian on the morning Princeton flooded in 2021. Video by Danie Brooks.

Search-and-rescue eventually boated Dian to dry land and delivered her to a motel in Princeton. Danie stayed behind with neighbours hoping to salvage what he could. It would be some eight months before their home was livable again.

“When I was in the motel, in town, people came and brought stuff,” Dian remembered. “Who didn't help? The government didn't help,” she stated flatly. The two of them received about $12,000 from their insurance and had to spend that first before applying for any other assistance.

The B.C. government entity she assumed would come to their aid is Disaster Financial Assistance, which says it exists to assist people in repairing what is uninsured but “essential to your home, livelihood or community service.” When Dian Brooks applied for DFA she was told it could be a long wait before she saw any funds.

DFA money is only available for specific disasters determined by the province, primary residences and does not cover damages caused by wildfires, earthquakes, snow or wind. While the program is administered by the provincial government, it is funded by Ottawa.

Since the Disaster Financial Assistance program began in 1970, the federal government provided provinces and territories $6.8 billion for 220 disasters to help with infrastructure and personal property recovery.

Eligible renters, homeowners, small businesses, farms, charities and local governments can apply for assistance for uninsurable losses. So far, for the atmospheric river alone, Disaster Fianancial Assistance costs for recovery and response are estimated by the province to be over $4 billion. That’s more than half the amount the federal government has given out in the more than 50 year existence of the program.

Meanwhile, an analysis by the Globe and Mail estimates the cost of rebuilding at over $9 billion.

$32.6 million was given to 3,200 British Columbians through the disaster financial assistance program in 2021

Data provided by the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

For Dian, cash was scarce. “Well, where do you get the money, when you're on a small pension? I spent my days resourcing. I spent my days filling out applications. I spent my days talking to people. In some cases, talking people down from ledges. And other people who were in the same boat and who were feeling pretty despondent,” she said.

Motels where Dian stayed cost her thousands of dollars a month, which the Red Cross helped cover. Eventually she got help from the Red Cross to buy a trailer for $500 and move back onto the property.

Dian stayed in the trailer while brother Danie lived on the second floor of the house and made repairs. There was no running water or insulation so they built a well and brought drinking water in from town. For the rebuild they got supplies and helping hands from NGOs like Mennonite Disaster Service Canada, the military veterans-led Team Rubicon and the Sikh Motorcycle Club.

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Dian Brooks feeds a horse her brother saved as floodwaters invaded their property near Princeton in 2021. Getting funding to restore her damaged home was all-consuming for the retiree on a small pension. ‘I spent my days filling out applications. I spent my days talking to people, in some cases, talking people down from ledges.’ Photo by Jen Osborne.

Dian said the application process for Disaster Financial Assistance was arduous and triggering. She said was asked to fill in the same information multiple times with no clear idea of when the funding might come through or updates on her application status. Months later they received about $51,000.

The Brooks said they have since appealed the amount as it supposedly covered what the government deemed essential parts of their home, but for some reason excluded their heating and cooling system and water system. There were also unexplained deductions. They are still waiting to hear back from the officials.

A ‘policy gap’ that lands survivors in ‘limbo’

The B.C. government knows there is a “gap” to blame for the kinds of frustrations faced by the Brooks and other survivors who told us they are consumed with trying to pay for restoring their homes in order to get on with their lives.

“There is currently a policy gap in instances where citizens who do not have insurance or are underinsured have lost or damaged homes,” reads a January 2022 briefing note to Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth The Tyee obtained through a freedom of information request. “There is currently no policy or provincial program to assist evacuees who require support beyond what [Emergency Support Services] provides for.”

Rochelle Rupert remembers being on the phone constantly trying to navigate what funding was available for flood survivors. “You spend all day there sometimes just to get like a few hundred dollar vouchers for food and groceries or clothing and stuff because you didn't have much with you. Then you're promised all this funding, but you have to call them and call them and call them and be on hold for hours and hours and hours.”

She remembers one day she made 52 phone calls. She had to take time off work to deal with all the government forms, non-profit organizations, insurance providers and getting quotes. She eventually had to leave her job because she ran out of vacation time.

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Rochelle Rupert thought she’d bought stability with her home in Merritt. The flood of 2021 washed that away. ‘You're promised all this funding, but you have to call them and call them and call them and be on hold for hours and hours and hours.’ Almost two years later she has a fraction of what she needs to salvage the house. Photo by Jen Osborne.

When we met Rupert at her house in Merritt, her realtor was outside fixing the for sale sign. “I’m literally living in limbo,” Rupert explained. She was told to flee in the November 2021 floods, and while the evacuation order has been lifted, she isn’t able to return home. When we visited in November 2022, the home was mostly empty, with some of the walls and flooring removed. A dehumidifier hummed in one of the bedrooms.

When we spoke again in March she said she had to take the property off the market after too many offers fell through.

Rupert bought the home so she could put down roots. But since the floods, she’s shuffled between ten different places; staying with friends and acquaintances as she tries to rebuild. Now she lives in a rental unit that’s just a few minutes away.

“It just seems like the federal government and the provincial government need to start thinking about these kinds of emergencies and putting funding streams in place for cities to apply for things like temporary housing,” Rupert said. “Things like getting the water back up, and the sewer back up — getting people back home.”

She eventually received some money through the Red Cross and Disaster Financial Assistance but she estimates it’s a fraction of what it will cost to rebuild — especially as the price of housing materials continues to rise.

A few blocks away, Donna Rae’s home insurance didn’t include “overland” coverage, so she failed to qualify for flood payouts. Overland is not part of standard home-insurance and was only recently made more available to residential properties. The cost of coverage is based on risk and can come with large deductibles, according to the Insurance Brokers Association of BC.

Rae said she applied for Disaster Financial Assistance right away but waited months before any decisions were made. While she was waiting, she got an email from her bank offering financial assistance so she decided to apply for a loan. “It was able to get me money to get started for the cleanup and the rebuild,” she said. “So now I'm in debt till I die.” After about five months, she received $66,000 from Disaster Financial Assistance.

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Donna Rae’s fight to restore her flood damaged home in Merritt persists over a year later, including fired contractors, deep debt and thefts. Daily, she still has to dump buckets of water dehumidified from her disaster-soaked abode. Photo by Jen Osborne.

When we visited in November, Rae’s work wasn't finished, but her progress was visible. “It’s been really hard.” A new stove sat in the living room waiting to be installed. Tools were scattered around the kitchen and tarp-covered dining room. Newly installed carpets freshened the bedrooms.

Rae has had to hire and fire contractors. She’s wrangled insurance claims that were ultimately denied. She’s waited for federal funding that took months. She told us she had a break-in where her dehumidifier, faucet, extension cords, clock radio and contractor’s tools were stolen. Almost every day she would drive to the property to empty a bucket of water collected from the dehumidifier from the crawlspace.

“I can’t believe I’m still doing this,” she said as she drained the water down a street grate.

BC’s moves to modernize Disaster Financial Assistance

After the atmospheric rivers of 2021, the province received almost 3,000 private Disaster Financial Assistance applications which was more than the last four years combined, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

In the past two years, some changes have been made for small businesses and expanding the eligibility based on income. The province said it has increased their staffing to process the application and, as of February this year, 99 per cent of applications have been processed. Still, “more changes to the DFA program are needed to better support people,” the ministry acknowledged.

The province has made attempts to streamline the process by starting to digitize the evacuee registration process and launching direct interac etransfer payments for people who register online.

“Moving from an archaic paper-based system to a digital platform will ensure safe and timely access to services for those who need help during some of their hardest moments,” said Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general in a 2020 press release. The process is also meant to speed up payments to suppliers, like hotels and grocery stores, who accepted vouchers from evacuees then had to apply and wait for reimbursement from the provincial government.

But not all communities are equipped or trained to work with the digital registration process. Evacuees must self-register, which requires them to first verify their identity using the BC Services app which can take up to 48 hours. To do this, you need to have access to the internet, an electronic device, familiarity with pairing devices, digital verification, a second device with a camera, an address and a form of identification.

I pre-registered for B.C.’s evacuee assistance hoping to learn what I might be eligible for if disaster should strike. First, I had to verify my identity and needed to provide my address, full name, gender, date of birth, create security questions, acknowledge privacy protocols and authorize communications with me. Then I had to use my computer to log on to the evacuee assistance portal. The entire process took me about 45 minutes of back-and-forth between my laptop and smartphone, and I also had to wait overnight to have my identity verified. After all of that, I can access an application form to fill in if I am ever evacuated.

By comparison, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has a national app that does not immediately require any personal information except for your location. In seconds I was able to get access to resource lists for disaster preparedness and recovery. You can sign up for disaster notifications in your region and search for nearby emergency shelters. It also provides a portal to apply for government assistance and gives me an overview of the process and what I will need before starting.

The digital process works well for middle-class citizens who have a smartphone or computer and are technologically literate, said Tarina Colledge, board member of the British Columbia Association of Emergency Managers. “It excludes a lot of our already vulnerable and marginalized populations” she said, “including those without smartphone technology, rural populations without internet access, or someone unfamiliar with online banking.”

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Tarina Colledge, board member of the BC Association of Emergency Managers, is a public safety veteran and herself survived the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. Alberta has some things to teach BC about empowering evacuees to take control of their recovery, said Colledge. Photo supplied.

Colledge has over 15 years of experience working with local governments in public safety. She was part of the Fort McMurray wildfire response in 2016 that saw over 90,000 people evacuated and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. It is the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history with an estimated insured losses of $3.7 billion.

She was also an evacuee of that 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and found herself lining up for help at an evacuation centre. She remembers being greeted with empathy, being asked for identification and walking out with an instant load credit card with finite funds based on the number of people in her household. Some evacuees at urban centres had to wait hours in line to get their prepaid cards. For Colledge, who went to a centre in a smaller community, the entire interaction was minutes long and she left feeling empowered to make decisions for herself and her family.

Unless people are staying at an evacuation centre, people have to ask for more assistance if they need it beyond the first 72 hours. Three days after the calamity, the support ends unless the local authority has advocated for an extension, Colledge explains. The province is the decision maker regarding the extensions and the community facilitates extensions to people who need it.

So even if a survivor does receive supports the whole time they are displaced, said Colledge, “You're still always held in this waiting period, not knowing what's next, not knowing when the end is in sight and not knowing what comes after that.”

Alberta’s response to wildfires in 2016 was different, she noted. The province allowed evacuees the autonomy to get what they need to survive, when they need it and move on, she said. “Alberta's perspective was, ‘Who are we to determine what normal is for anybody and who are we to direct and dictate what their needs are?’” For example, if someone wants to use those funds to put towards an RV they have a temporary home and can go where they need, Colledge said.

Giving people the autonomy to make their own decisions empowers them towards their own recovery and gives funds to the communities where people mobilize, she said. You aren’t a “poor disaster victim,” Colledge explained, you’re just a person making purchases. She believes that evacuees need to be assumed to be capable of making the best decision for themselves and their communities.

Hundreds of studies and dozens of trials show that cash transfers help improve the lives of survivors in need. This model is being taken to new heights through the non-profit, GiveDirectly. After Hurricane Ian hit Florida and Hurricane Fiona lashed Puerto Rico in September, 4,748 residents got push notifications to their phones asking if they would like $700 with no questions asked.

A Google algorithm used satellite imagery and poverty data to determine what areas were hardest hit and delivered the message to people through an app that manages food stamp payments. They immediately received money into their accounts and were able to spend it on whatever they needed. The organization is now piloting a program in Mozambique using predictive mapping to send mobile cash transfers to people before the next flood strikes.

Playing catch-up with volunteers ‘well past capacity’

“British Columbia has been disproportionately impacted by climate change disasters,” reads Premier David Eby’s mandate letter to the province’s newly created Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness. Its first minister, Bowinn Ma, was tasked with overseeing the modernizing of B.C.’s emergency management legislation and building the province’s capacity to address future disasters.

“A lot of the emergency support services were designed in a time before the realities of climate change,” said Ma in an interview with The Tyee. The Emergency Support Services program, as an example, was first developed in the 1990s and has not really evolved since. The province has extended the program’s support beyond 72 hours if needed, Ma said. “In those cases, we will work with the communities, the local governments to understand what the need is.”

Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma with Premier David Eby at right. Questions on how to improve support by the Emergency Support Services and the Disaster Financial Assistance program are ‘very alive and active in our ministry,’ Ma told The Tyee.

Since June 2022, 77 of 430 incidents had the emergency support extended beyond 72 hours, according to data tracked by the ministry’s digital system. Eleven of those events had supports extended beyond 30 days. Some evacuees qualified to get continued financial support beyond the first few days for things like accommodations or groceries.

Meanwhile, the work to digitize Emergency Support Services continues. Ma pointed to how the province recently introduced interac etransfers so that evacuees can have direct deposits into their bank accounts, created a portal so that people can register for evacuee assistance online and moved away from paper and voucher systems.

While not all communities have been brought on board to use the digital evacuee registration system, as of February, 79 communities, including 14 First Nations, had been trained. “Our goal is to get every community on it,” Ma said.

The province has made available $180 million for First Nations and local communities through the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund to cover everything from risk mapping, community education and building dikes.

The province also recently updated the Emergency Support Services program guide to better “meet the needs of Indigenous communities,” Ma said. “We haven't always done a good job of creating safe spaces for Indigenous people during an emergency and that needs to change.”

Questions on how to evolve the Emergency Support Services and the Disaster Financial Assistance program are “very alive and active in our ministry,” said Ma.

B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke is investigating whether Emergency Support Services and the Disaster Financial Assistance program are addressing the needs of British Columbians.

“We want to make sure that the program was widely understood and available to people who might be affected,” Chalke told The Tyee. The investigation also hopes to find out if decisions were made in a timely fashion, if funds were easy to receive, if the program was administered fairly, and whether or not people had opportunities to dispute decisions.

By October, the office had already heard from over 300 evacuees. Chalke said he aims to publish findings and recommendations later this year.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government is undergoing a repeal and replacement of the province’s Emergency Program Act — a legislation that has its roots in the First World War and hasn’t changed much since. Changes to the legislation could affect how Emergency Support Services and the Disaster Financial Assistance program are administered.

The province has committed to broadening eligibility for the Disaster Financial Assistance program to more small business owners and farms and providing communities with cash up-front for communities to repair critical infrastructure. No specific improvements are mentioned for homeowners or renters.

At a November presentation at an emergency preparedness conference in Vancouver representatives of the provincial government shared their efforts to engage citizens and improve support as a packed room of emergency management professionals listened.

What the officials offered was a broad overview. The new legislation, they said, aims to address the increasing risk of climate disasters and take a more holistic view of response and recovery that also looks at reducing disaster risks and aligns itself with B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

They made no specific mention of long-term evacuees.

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Tyrone McNeil is president of the Stό:lō Tribal Council and chair of the Emergency Planning Secretariat, an organization of 31 communities working to implement a Coast Salish-led flood management strategy. Emergency Support Services ‘certainly doesn't accommodate our cultural or dietary needs. It doesn't accommodate our sense of family and community.’ Photo by Francesca Fionda.

At the end of the slideshow, Tyrone McNeil stood up to voice his concerns that the promises were too vague and without clear funding commitments. He added that local authorities need direction on how to implement changes related to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

After the presentation McNeil told The Tyee he was surprised that reforming Emergency Support Services was not discussed. The policy needs to shift to recognize the needs of evacuees who are displaced for longer periods of time. “What can we do more proactively here and now that gets us better prepared?” he said.

Deborah Jones-Middleton, who has worked in emergency management for over a decade, also stood up at the end of the government presentation to express her worries that without more people and resources, the system could collapse. Staff, she said, are “well past capacity.” This legislation could add significant layers of responsibilities to local governments and First Nations without providing needed additional funding or support. We are being set up to fail, she said.

Government representatives acknowledged McNeil and Jones-Middleton’s concerns. The hope is to introduce new legislation in spring 2023.

‘I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen’

As Donna Rae cleaned up the debris and mud in her Merritt home, she found something she thought she had lost in the floods, a box of family photos. She shared a few of them, including a Christmas portrait dated 1956. It showed Donna as a young girl with her siblings and Santa, taken at a now out-of-business Eaton’s department store.

It was two-thirds of a century later when we visited, and a year after the floods experts say herald intensifying weather in British Columbia and beyond.

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Top: Merritt flood survivor Donna Rae rescued from the debris pictures of her and siblings at Christmas in 1956. Bottom: The receding waters revealed a lonely gate but the surrounding fence swept away. Photos by Jen Osborne.

The block is changing, Rae said as she looked down her street. One of the houses was slated to be torn down. Another homeowner was hanging on and hoping to rebuild. But Rae wasn’t sure she had the energy and money to do the same.

By February, she had pretty much made up her mind. “I’m thinking I’m going to sell my house,” she said over a Zoom call. That way she could pay off her debt, maybe find a mobile home somewhere. When we spoke, she was staying with her 94-year-old mother and helping her around the house. “I honestly don't know what's gonna happen next.”

That seemed true for Rae when we visited her home in November. She pointed to the pathway leading to the door of her house. At the end, there stood a gate but no fence — its posts and boards all swept away by the flood. While others have described the surviving gate as a symbol of resilience, to Rae it’s comical.

“All I can do is laugh,” she said. “I’ve spent enough time crying.”

This is a part of ‘Bracing for Disasters,’ an occasional series investigating how to support evacuees and save lives as extreme weather worsens in B.C. This project was funded by the inaugural Lieutenant Governor’s BC Journalism Fellowship. The Tyee retained complete editorial control of this series.

With files from: The Climate Disaster Project, Aldyn Chwelos, Gage Smith, Geena Mortfield, Michael John Lo, Christina Gervais, Amber Bear, Emilie Wren, Sean Holman

Data visualization: Andrew Munroe


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