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‘Everything Else from My Whole Past Was All Gone’

In her own words, Donna Rae recounts her flood ordeal and gets real about living on a pension after a climate catastrophe.

Donna Rae grew up in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver, “back when it was a working-class neighbourhood.” The oldest of five siblings, responsibilities for looking after the younger ones often fell to her when Donna’s parents were on shift work: her father being a firefighter, and her mom working in an office at The Bay. Vacations as a kid were camping and her family would travel to places such as 100 Mile House or Prince George. She grew up fishing in the ocean with her father, going to parks and beaches, and walking around the neighbourhood with friends, staying out until dark. Donna’s best friend lived in the next block so they’d run back and forth to each other.

Donna worked as a bus driver in Vancouver, first for Greyhound, then for HandyDart. She moved to Merritt in 2018 after deciding to retire. The more affordable housing market allowed Donna to purchase her retirement home. And Merritt’s proximity to the Lower Mainland meant friends and family could still easily visit. Before the flooding, the bathroom in Donna’s home had just been redone with a new shower wall, a new vanity, a new sink, a new floor and a fresh coat of paint. “It looked great,” she says.

When Donna isn’t tending her garden or working in the yard of her downtown home, she is out with her camera, looking for the perfect shot — usually a landscape or a flower. She would also go “day-tripping,” hiking and exploring local areas, such as lakes and old mines. Donna also quickly made friends in Merritt and, during the flooding, they helped one another out. One of them, Waneta, offered a room in her home and Donna helped out friends and neighbours too, including people that were staying on “the outside” of the barricaded flooded city and those who stayed behind in their homes on “the inside.”

Here is Donna Rae’s first-hand account of enduring the Merritt flood of 2021 and being urged by “powers that be” to trade her truck for a climate-friendly electric car, as told to Geena Mortfield of the Climate Disaster Project:

It was 4:15 in the morning, I heard sirens outside. Woke me up. Noticed the flashing lights. I look out the window and I don't know what's going on. There's shouting with a bullhorn of “evacuate immediately!” I go to the front door to see what's going on. I saw water on the street, the yard and water up on my porch. “Holy cow.” I quickly got dressed. I grabbed my camera bag, and my laptop bag. I had a satchel already ready with important papers, because we had been on fire alert before. So I grabbed that and my purse, phone and remembered the charger. On the way out the door, I picked up a pair of rubber boots and a raincoat. Then I just went to my truck and drove out through the two feet of water. I just drove up the hill and sat in the dark for a while to figure out what's going on.

Fortunately, the drive thru at Tim Hortons was open. I went up there and got something and a coffee and I drove back to the park and sat there just eating and drinking and thinking, “I don't know what to do next.”

My neighbour and friend that I go exploring with then phoned me because he was up early and had driven his wife to work. Their office was not affected by the flood so he was still sitting at her office. I told him where I was, and he came up to meet me. I drove him up through the drive thru and we went and got more coffee. By then, it was starting to get light out so we took a drive around up the hillside over top of Merritt to take a look.

There was a lot of brown water. There was one guy there who goes, “I don't know what the big deal is, it’s just water.” He was an out-of-towner, and I went, "My house is under that water." He was very apologetic because there was a lot of out-of-town pipeline workers who didn't know. We stood up on that hillside just kind of agog at how this normally dry little town is now just covered in muddy water.

Then we got shooed away by the police because one bridge was already broken, and the other one might have been getting broken. We had to go back. I dropped him off back at his truck. That was when Waneta phoned me and said, "I think you better come here." Because there were no roads open for me to get down to any friends or family at the coast.

I remember thinking that I had forgotten to get my medication. And so I was going to try to walk back. But the power of the water was so strong it would be foolish to try to walk there. I didn't go because there were search and rescue people there with their inflatable kayak things. They were getting people out of houses that hadn't yet left. I thought I would just be another one of those people that need to be rescued. So I didn't go, figured I could try again another time. I tried again the next day. By then they had barricades up. I wasn't allowed to get back into town. I just turned around, sat on the side of the road and cried for a while because I don't know what to do.

A lot of police had been brought in to look after the situation. People were comparing them to SWAT team cops. You couldn't get through the barricades, because there were police cars and police officers there. We weren't asking to go live in it. We are asking to just go so we can get our stuff. I could have saved what was in my fridge and my freezer. I could have saved my bed.

Nobody was allowed back in. I took a drive to Ashcroft. I went to a pharmacy there and asked if I could get an emergency prescription. They gave me a month's supply. And then I bought a night gown, some underwear and some socks because I had nothing. I shopped for three families while I was in Ashcroft. There was no way for the people in the neighbourhood where I was staying to get groceries. I was able to come back with my truck full of groceries for three families. And I bought beer for the neighbour that stayed in town to protect his property.

When I was getting the groceries, I phoned him. "Hey, Gary. I'm in Ashcroft beside the liquor store here. Would you like me to bring anything back?" He said, "Well, if you can get me six flats of Budweiser, that'd be great." He would share with people on the inside. I bought the beer. The woman who lived on the outside, met me on the outside. We transferred all the beer to her car so she could go inside and take the beer to people. They were very happy because they were also really stressed and anxious dealing with their own flood situation. It made me feel good to help them. I actually did three booze runs.

Then another day, the local food bank in Merritt wasn't able to open. The people that run it lived on the outside. I went there one day and I said, "How can I help?" The next day, I had ordered some sandwiches for them from the local cafe that's on the outside, because they're volunteer workers there. They were providing sandwiches. I ordered all the sandwiches and picked them up and delivered them. The next day the person I'm staying with, the person who was the other evacuee, and me, we made sandwiches and bunwiches at the house, wrapped them all up, and I drove 'em over. We did that to help them. It was just a small part to play in the overall big picture. For people helping people, right?

Donna Rae holds two white buckets from Rona outside the front of her house.
When photographed in November, a year after the flood, Rae was still having to haul buckets of collected water from her home. Pushing beyond the shock of displacement has meant ‘lots of sleepless nights. Lots of anxiety. Even now, you think you're over it, but then reliving it, it still brings tears.’ Photo by Jen Osborne.

It took almost three weeks before we were allowed back into our neighbourhood. My first sight going into the neighbourhood was a street full of mud. I had to use four-wheel drive to go through it because it was so thick, and slick. As soon as you open that door, the smell was awful because the mildew had started, the mould had started. The first thought when I opened the door and saw the chaos and the mud was, "How will I ever pay for this?" Because everything was a jumble. The waterline on the wall was about three feet high, you can see where the water had come in. You open the toilet lid and you could see where it had all splashed up from in the sewers. I didn't do anything that first day. It was so overwhelming. I just had to leave.

The dishes and the pots and pans that were on the bottom cupboards, they can be washed. The stove, fridge and dishwasher couldn't be saved. Three weeks with that water seeping up, all that bedding had to be thrown out and the mattress and the box springs. All of it had to go. That's pretty hard to deal with. My portfolio that I had with all of my prints is ruined. Everything else from my whole past was all gone. There were plenty of tears. Lots of sleepless nights. Lots of anxiety. Even now, you think you're over it, but then reliving it, it still brings tears. I'm still going through it.

In the beginning, I didn't really think about the fact that it had anything to do with climate change because all you are is shell shocked. And you're kind of walking around like, "I gotta do this, I gotta do that, I gotta do this." “Oh, I gotta go buy this and OK, I have to do this.” That’s sort of all you think about for a while. But then, "Oh, yeah, this probably has something to do with climate change." Because it's a variety of things that brought it to that point, not just one thing. That fire was unprecedented. That rain was unprecedented.

The powers that be would like us to use heat pumps, electric or hot water on demand, or get electric cars. But all of these things are too expensive for the ordinary person like myself to purchase. And you know, BC Hydro often sends out surveys. “Have you heard about electric cars?” Yes. “Do you think you might buy one?” No. Who's got $40,000 to go buy a new car? My truck is paid for. And so if someone wants to give me the money to drive an electric car? Sure. I'll take a Ford Lightning, thank you very much. But the reality is that a great many of us don't have money to go buy new vehicles, or to install a heat pump. So you make do with your electric baseboards. Or a space heater in your room when it's cold.

I'm 71 now and I live on pensions. I just can't keep doing this. I had made it my retirement home. But it just doesn't feel like it right now. When I walk in there, it's just chaos. And having gone through two contractors that really let me down. I'm $70,000 in and it's still not done.

Donna Rae 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]

Read more: Housing, Environment

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