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‘It Was Dark, and You Could Hear Water Rushing’

In her own words, Rochelle Rupert tells of waking up to the nightmare of the Coldwater River poised to invade her home.

Rochelle Rupert, as told to Geena Mortfield 19 May 2023The Tyee

Rochelle Rupert is one of 11 climate catastrophe survivors who narrate their experiences as part of The Tyee’s Bracing for Disasters series.

Rochelle Rupert always knew she would eventually end up in British Columbia. Born in Ontario and growing up in a suburb of Ottawa, Rochelle fell for the rugged wilderness of the West Coast province when her family moved to White Rock, B.C. for a year. It happened while she was there over Easter. That’s when her parents hid eggs in the forested area surrounding their house, where deer would visit and fawns would eat leaves off of the small trees.

“You can die out here. You can get swept away by freshet — people have. You can die in forest fires. Your house could burn in a forest fire. You could drown easily, you can fall off a cliff. People literally die hiking here. There's wilderness. You could get eaten by a bear. You could get mauled by a cougar. It's kind of crazy,” she says. “But I loved it.”

Her love of being outdoors — whether soaking up the sun, floating in the pool, riding horses, enjoying lakes and mountains or kayaking — stayed with Rochelle and she would complete two degrees in environmental science.

She moved back to B.C. after completing her master’s degree, where she thought there would be more job opportunities in her chosen field. In addition to environmental consulting jobs, Rochelle has worked on dairy farms and cattle ranches. She returned to Ontario briefly after her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but has since made B.C. her home again.

After first renting in Merritt, a town she had only initially seen when travelling for work and fuelling up in “Gasoline Alley,” Rochelle was able to buy her first house on her own. The 1960s bungalow had the perfect backyard escape for her: a pool, a patio for tanning, a hot tub, privacy hedges, a sunroom and quick access to a walking path along the river: “one of the nicest areas in Merritt,” where deciduous trees dot the edge of the river’s bank, their leaves colourful in the fall.

When flooding hit Merritt in November 2021, Rochelle was coming up on four years of owning her house and waiting for the right time in the market to sell and upgrade. She was busy with work at her day job as a senior environmental resource advisor for the Citxw Nlaka’pamux Assembly, a non-profit First Nations organization. Her evenings and weekends were spent helping out at a local trail riding business, hanging out with friends and house maintenance, along with taking care of her two cats, Bitty and BooBoo, and her backyard chickens.

Here is Rochelle Rupert’s first-hand account of surviving a flood and facing a home restoration that seems to never end, as told to Geena Mortfield of the Climate Disaster Project:

The first notification I had that there was going to be a flood of the Coldwater was at 3:30 in the morning. Somebody knocked on my door and I was so confused. It woke me up but I wasn't really awake. And I was like, “Nobody would possibly be knocking on my door at three.” Then they knocked again. So I got out of bed. I go to the front door.

As I'm walking through the front door and passing the windows in my house, you can see all these flashing lights. Police lights are flashing the whole time. There was a male and a female cop there. They said, “We need to tell you that the Coldwater is going to flood. So pack a 72-hour bag and go somewhere higher.” I was half asleep and they're like, “We know this is a lot [to] process right now. But the Coldwater is flooding. So pack your bag. Get up.”

They don't spend very long there and they wrap a pink ribbon around my porch railing to signal that someone had been there to notify me. Then they move on to my neighbours. My neighbour two doors over has a pond in their backyard. It was already rising with the level of the river. They got it pretty bad. And they got it first.

I had started packing my car. I was just like, “OK, who do I even call and say anything to about this?” I don't even know who could help me right now. A lot of people I know live in this same area and are probably getting evacuated and it's 3:30. Who do I know well enough to call? The other thing going through my head is, “Do I really need to leave?” How bad could it possibly be?"

So then my neighbour came over from across the street when I was packing up the car and had one cat in a cage and the other one was still in my bedroom. And he's like, “I don't know if I'm gonna leave.” And I was like, “Yeah, me neither. I don't know what you should be doing. Or where do you even go?” I don't know what to do about the chickens. It's the middle of the night, they're not going to come out of their coop because they don't come out of the coop at night. That's their safe place. I opened the door for them. But I couldn't force them to come out.

I packed a bag, just a small suitcase with some clothes in it. I had one cat and one cat is still in the bedroom. I'm debating. Then, all of a sudden we look at the street. The water is starting to pour onto the street. I've never seen that happen before. So I kind of got panicky because I was like, “Oh shit, it's happening. It's happening right now.”

I don't have a truck. I have a car and I was like, “Oh no if the water gets too high, I won't even be able to drive out of here.” So I went back inside and I got my other cat. By the time I was rolling out of my driveway, the water was like up to the top of the tires. It had gotten high so fast.

It was dark, and you could hear water rushing. But it was pretty cold. It was almost freezing. Seeing the water rush on the roads is what made me nervous. Then, driving through the water, it sounded like driving through the deepest puddle you've ever driven through.

When I was driving up and out of my neighbourhood, I had to go back down towards my house which I didn't think would be as bad as my street. But it was. The water was already a river on the road. There was debris flowing by, wheelbarrows and buckets and branches. I was manoeuvring around the road. It’s pitch black too. You don't even know if you're going to hit something. I got to my friend Eric's at 4:30 in the morning and just tried to go to sleep.

The next day they hadn’t shut down Merritt yet. So there are still ways you could sneak into the town. So my friends snuck me in because I need my laptop. I need more than three days of underwear. But my street was still a river. We could drive on part of the street, but the gravel area that was between the road and the driveway where most people park had completely washed away, and it was just flowing water. So we had to cross that to get into my house. I didn't realize how deep it would be, it was almost up to your hip.

I obviously wanted to check on my chickens. I made my friend go look for me because I was like, “I can't right now.” He just walked back there and he just came back shaking his head. I thought they would go up to higher ground because there's lots of stuff they could jump on back there around their coop and in their run. Like the compost bin or even the top of the coop. But they did not even try to leave, probably because it was dark and they were scared. They either drowned or froze to death.

I went into my house. And the minute I opened the door, it was like — bam! — kerosene oil smell. Only I didn't even know that's what it was at the time. Back then I was thinking that it was my fault, because I had an ex-boyfriend that was a carpenter. He was using this stuff called mineral spirits for his job. It has a really strong chemical smell. He had a whole bottle of that in the basement. I thought the bottle of mineral spirits had spilled open.

It wasn't until mid December, around three weeks after the flood, that we found the oil tank in the crawlspace. I’m pretty sure it went from owner to owner, never being disclosed to anyone. So all my belongings, everything I own smells like this oil. Like an oil spill. That smell will stay with me for the rest of my life. I will probably have nightmares about it.

Rochelle Rupert wanders the edge of the Coldwater River whose flooding ruined the home her mother helped her buy. ‘I feel really alone in this situation because, yes, all my neighbours got flooded, but they all live in their houses again. And they all have families. Most of them are married, have children. They were going through it with somebody. They weren't going through it alone.’ Photo by Jen Osborne.

I was gonna go stay with my friend, Sherry. But she does live quite close to the Nicola River, which was only an issue once you're outside of town. She was really nervous. “Rochelle, if you're coming, you better come now the water's getting higher.” She lives on the other side of a bridge. So she's like, “If you don't come now, I don't know if you'll make it.” So I tried. I packed my cats in the car and all the stuff I had and I started driving to her house. And by the time I got to her house, the bridge was out. So I couldn't cross there.

I had another friend that lived opposite of her. It’s only a 15-minute drive. She’s allergic to cats. I called her. I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you. I got my two cats in the car.” One of them’s freaking out, panting, barfing. She hates the car so much and she was stressing her life out. So she let me bring my cats up, but they had to stay in the garage, which is mostly heated. She has a cat she keeps in the garage to chase mice. It’s not really like a pet. So I spent three nights there and I stayed in the garage because I had to make sure the fighting wasn’t too bad. I slept on the pool table. And then I left after three days.

My colleague offered me a room with her. Her house was in lower Nic, just outside Merritt and on the reserve. She could only offer it to me again for three days because she has her kids one week on, one week off, and so she didn't have them that week. She let me stay while she didn't have them. Then, when she got them back, I had to find another place to go. I went to Kamloops and I stayed with another ex-colleague. He offered his basement suite to me and I stayed there for two weeks.

I spent most of my time after the flood either outside of Merritt or in Kamloops. They didn't let you back in after the first day, so you never saw it again really until weeks later.

All the water had gone but there was literally just mud everywhere. You could not wear nice clothing to your house. I still can't. It either comes out smelling or it gets mud on it.

There's probably two feet of mud in my garage. And you had to dig yourself out. Basically, you had to dig your way into the basement. It was a week of shovelling mud to get to the basement. And then another week of shovelling mud out of the basement. And then I spent $5,000 on a hydro vac to get the rest of it out of the basement. Everything in the basement is still muddy. It's still caked in mud.

I kept one third I had left of my mom's inheritance and I used it to buy this house. I feel like I just wasted all the money she gave me when she was trying to help support me in my future. So that's one thing that really impacts me. I think about it all the time, how it's all I had left of her and now that house is destroyed too, and I can't even live there.

It's really hard for me because I feel really alone in this situation because, yes, all my neighbours got flooded, but they all live in their houses again. And they all have families. Most of them are married, have children. They were going through it with somebody. They weren't going through it alone. And I just feel like it's been going on forever. It's never gonna stop.

I can't tell you the amount of time and effort I've spent on my house. In the first few months it was phone calls. I was on the phone constantly. The amount of time you spent waiting for the emergency social services. 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. And then I'm calling contractors and calling people who can give me estimates on the furnace and the hot water tank. I'm calling electricians because I need all new electricity. Then I find out about the oil spill and it's the same deal. Then it's calling insurance because now I have a claim.

There were days where I had made 52 phone calls on my phone. The city traipses me around to different government organizations and departments to show them this is the worst case scenario. But they weren't raising money for me, they were raising money for the city.

I left work so many times that I used up my two weeks’ vacation just going to deal with things at my house. But, at the same time for me, nothing has changed. I still don't live at my house and I still have to deal with it on a daily basis. There's something every day that I have to do related to the house. And the saddest part is it's seven months later and it's still just a gutted shell. Going to it is so depressing.

They say it's only a one in a 100-year event, but it had to happen at some point. It’s going to happen to somebody. I was warned a decade ago that climate change is going to impact here badly and have more impact on people than in say Ontario or Quebec and I didn't listen. One reason I work with First Nations is they use the land and water the way they do because it needs to be there for seven generations. Our culture and our society barely thinks to the next generation. We don't really worry about what their future is going to be until it's too late: reacting, instead of proactively making sure that the Earth is going to be a place that our own children can live, let alone our grandchildren. It's wants versus needs. And it seems like, as a society, we want too much.

I really don't care about material possessions. The thing that depressed me the most about the flood is not the loss of the things I own, but the loss of the feeling of having a home. It was that place where you're comfortable, that place that's yours, that place you can go and relax, that place you can shield yourself from others, that place you can recoup, that place you re-energize. That place for me was gone and didn't exist anymore. And instead it was substituted with just stress and constant worry about where I was gonna live.

It was like being homeless all of a sudden. I know I always had a roof over my head. I had a lot of friends help me. But to have that stress of being homeless on you, because you're constantly looking for another place to live. Part of November, December, January, February, March, April — six months almost — before I found a place where I knew I wasn't going to have to move again until my house was fixed. It's just that unsettling feeling and the fact that I was stressing my cats out by constantly moving. That was weighing on me a lot. It was just all those little things. I just wanted to be back home.

Rochelle Rupert is one of 11 climate catastrophe survivors who narrate their first-hand experiences as part of Bracing for Disasters, an occasional Tyee series investigating how to support evacuees and save lives as extreme weather worsens in B.C. (Learn more about how the University of Victoria-based Climate Disaster Project conducted these interviews in this story’s sidebar.)

If you are a disaster survivor looking for support or resources, or want to know how to be prepared, read our story 'How You Can Be Ready for the Next Disaster.'

This project was funded by the inaugural Lieutenant Governor’s BC Journalism Fellowship. The Tyee retained complete editorial control of the series.  [Tyee]

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