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B.C. Flooding: Scenes of Suffering and Solidarity, As Climate Experts Warned of Bigger Picture

This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

November 25, 2021: Heartbreak and heroism were everywhere in the unfolding story of the British Columbia floods, while those watching from near and far warned any policy-makers and public still unconvinced of the need for rapid, concerted climate action to think again, and quickly.

Staggering forward after being pummeled by an “atmospheric river” last week, British Columbia has now imposed both travel and gas restrictions throughout its southwest and coastal regions, reports CBC News. The former will ensure ease of passage for repair crews and emergency personnel, while the latter aims to prevent panic buying as fuel supplies grow tighter, with both the Trans Mountain and Enbridge Westcoast pipelines still offline.

As for the state of the highways connecting the Lower Mainland to the rest of the province, CBC writes that Highway 3 has opened to alternating single-lane traffic. The other highways remain closed to non-essential travel, the Trans Canada and the Coquihalla likely for months to come. 

Even as the flood waters began to recede in southern B.C., residents of the province’s North Coast were being warned to prepare for another atmospheric river coming ashore. Prince Rupert could receive as much as 150 millimetres of rain by Monday morning, while Haida Gwaii could see up to 60 millimetres, CBC reported Saturday.

Heartbreak is Everywhere

Meanwhile, heartbreak is everywhere. As The Energy Mix went to virtual press, CBC News had confirmed the deaths of three more people, men who were caught in the same mudslide on Highway 99 south of Lillooet that claimed the life of a woman from the Lower Mainland. A fourth man, believed to have been caught up in the same slide, remains unaccounted for. 

Further south and all along the Fraser Valley, livestock farmers continue the difficult work of trying to reach their animals, either to feed and water them, or to euthanize those past saving, reports the Globe and Mail.

And then there is the fate of hundreds of migrant workers whose livelihoods—and the well-being of dependent families back home—now hang by a sodden thread. As many as 700 migrant workers from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines have been displaced by the flooding, Byron Cruz of the Sanctuary Health Collective and Migrant Rights Network told Global News.

Explaining that most of those displaced are on work permits that tether them to one specific employer, and adding that they are also ineligible for Employment Insurance, Cruz said his organization and diplomats from the migrants’ countries have appealed to Ottawa for emergency aid. Those wishing to donate to help the vulnerable workers can do so via the Migrant Rights Network.

Kudos for Courage

Alongside all the anguish, there have been countless acts of courage, most spectacularly by the pilots and crew of three banana-yellow CH-149 Cormorant helicopters who braved pounding rain, fierce winds, thick fog, and harrowingly tight makeshift landing zones to ferry 311 people, 26 dogs, and one cat away from a mudslide on Highway 7 near Agassiz. One of those rescued told the Globe and Mail she will forever admire the crews who put their own lives so much at risk to help others. 

Likewise receiving kudos for courage is an ICU doctor from Surrey Memorial Hospital who together with his health team journeyed through the night in treacherous conditions to reach a man in Hope who had been critically injured in one of the slides. Describing how his team had been aided by CN Rail, the RCMP, and several other hospitals, Dr. Greg Haljan told CBC Radio’s As It Happens, “it’s just really incredible to be one small part of a huge chain of survival, and all the relationships and all the trust that went into it across so many different agencies.”

The many acts of extraordinary kindness have included efforts by B.C.’s Sikh community. From the Sikh temple in Kamloops that has been “running full-tilt” since the disaster began to provide hot meals to hundreds of stranded truckers, to Surrey temples that have been contracting helicopters to airlift food and essential supplies to cut-off communities in the Interior, and helping to find billets for the homeless, the community has been acting upon its core belief that where there is need, it must help, reports the Globe and Mail.

Radiating Circles of Harm

The need is great. Amongst the many concentric circles of harm radiating outward from B.C.’s devastating encounter with that “river in the sky” is a grain backlog. Three-quarters of Canada’s grain exports pass through the Port of Vancouver, reports the Globe and Mail, and as of Wednesday, writes iPolitics, some 100,000 tonnes of Prairie grain were stuck in rail cars to the east, and going nowhere. 

For some Canadian farmers, the broken supply chain is just more terrible news in a devastating year of poor harvests.

For farmers lucky enough to have avoided crop loss from drought, the supply chain rupture is a cruel eruption of fate into the laws of supply and demand. As explained in a May report by the CBC, high international demand for canola (primarily as a biofuel) caused the price of canola futures to skyrocket, and canola farmers who had managed to avoid getting hammered by drought stood to gain considerably. Citing the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, the Globe notes that “the price of canola futures for January delivery is trading higher than $1,000 a tonne,” up roughly 30% since May. 

But with their access to the Port of Vancouver now severed, all these farmers and their peers can do is wait, hoping they can get their harvest to its destination before it degrades or spoils.

A spoiled harvest is also a significant concern for Christmas tree farmers in the Lower Mainland. Andrew Loewen, who owns a tree farm in Chilliwack, told Reuters that 75% of his trees are underwater, and he fears especially for the health of the younger plantings.

Reuters adds that the loss of B.C. Christmas trees could be a serious blow to the domestic market, especially with a combination of pandemic-related labour shortages and extreme weather slamming the crop in Ontario.

Reporting on other circles of harm, CBC News writes that flood insurance woes will be top of mind for some caught up in the flood zone, as restaurants and small businesses in the Interior wonder how they will possibly hang on in the face of this latest blow to the supply chain. After wildfires and the pandemic wiped out tourism during the summer, and with floods now causing a major disruption, “we don’t actually have more to give in this scenario,” restaurant-partner Brandon Loughery, told CBC.

Needed: Federal Leadership on Water

As for the role that the climate crisis played in last weekend’s tragedy, B.C. Premier John Horgan did not mince words when he announced the state of emergency on Wednesday, Grist writes. “For those who understand and recognize that these events are increasing in regularity because of the effects of human-caused climate change, there is hope,” he said.

Crystal clear on the connection between the climate crisis and B.C.’s devastating year of wildfire and now flood is John Pomeroy, director of the global water futures program and Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan. In an op-ed for the Globe and Mail, Pomeroy points to the “dire need of federal leadership on water, because water is the medium through which climate change affects our economy, communities, and ecosystems.”

Affirming the climate crisis as a water crisis, he calls for “a national freshwater action plan”—guided by the latest research and “fully co-developed with our Indigenous communities”—and for funding to handle everything from flood and drought recovery to wetland and peatland restoration.

Widening his lens, he adds, “we need to support calls for a UN Year of Glacier Preservation and work with countries around the world to better understand the impacts of deglaciation.”

“We need national leadership on water, now, so that we can protect our ecosystems, communities, infrastructure, farms, and industries in a drier, hotter, stormier and more catastrophic future that—far faster than we anticipated—is becoming the dystopian present,” Pomeroy concludes.

Likewise urging readers of the Globe and Mail to focus on the reality of the climate crisis is author Arno Kopecky. While acknowledging the “dread-tinged grief” he feels as he contemplates B.C.’s place in the crosshairs of the climate crisis, Kopecky urges immediate, significant actions like a cap on fossil fuel production and forestry reform. Citing a 2019 study from the University of British Columbia, Kopecky flags how destabilizing clearcuts can be to the surrounding land: “Removing just 11% of a watershed’s trees doubles the frequency of floods, and increases the magnitude of those floods by 9 to 14%,” he writes, and “the implications go far beyond Merritt, or even B.C.”

While forest reform will no doubt be difficult, Kopecky adds, “surely it’s better to confront what can we do now than to stare at the sky and meekly wonder, what will happen to us next?