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Shealynn MacVicar stands with horses in her field. Photo: Sarah Williscraft

Merritt residents rebuild months after floods

Government relief funding is difficult to access and the housing market is still decimated.

By Elizabeth McDonald and Sarah Williscraft , in Business Environment Food , on May 2, 2022 Tags: , , , , ,

Shealynn MacVicar is preparing for the spring harvest and navigating government relief funding six months after flooding decimated Merritt. 

MacVicar and her husband, Eric, work from sunup until sundown, cleaning their four-hectare parcel that sits between a country road and the Nicola River. On top of caring for animals, planting, and navigating government programs, MacVicar is still processing the experience of evacuating her family.

“You’re stressed, you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re sore. You don’t want to do it … I don’t know anyone who’d be like, Sign me up to drag this 10,000-pound tarp full of mud out of the field,'”  MacVicar said.

The MacVicars are just one of the hundreds of families in the Nicola Valley who are struggling to rebuild.

While all of them were told to evacuate during the flood, they each have unique challenges to overcome since then as spring blooms in the Valley. They’ve had to cope with massive rebuilding efforts, waves of emotional distress, and a cripplingly cumbersome process for getting money from government relief programs.

Shealynn MacVicar stands with her plants in her greenhouse.                                                                              Photo: Sarah Williscraft
The arduous process of rebuilding

The first few months after the flood held a lot of uncertainty.

“It was touch and go. We didn’t have an idea whether we were even going to be able to recover and have a growing season,” said MacVicar.

The husband and wife duo removed a 15-centimetre layer of silt from their four-hectare plot. The family also found and cleaned plant pots and seedling trays that floated away and onto their neighbours’ properties. They rebuilt fencing, ensured they could house animals for the season, and homeschooled their daughters.

“There’s things that need to get done. And there’s nobody [that’s] going to do it for you. So you just put your boots on and get back in your muddy clothes and you get back to work.”

Planting work for the season began in January, with seeding of crops like onions, leeks and celery. The family babied those plants until the fields were free from frost in May. Other crops were started from seeds in the ground in April under poly-covers, a type of mini greenhouse that covers the fields’ garden beds.

They have 144 garden beds that are 15 metres long. In early spring, she estimated it would take them two or three weeks to complete the work.

“That’s if everything goes to plan, that’s if the weather co-operates with us. That’s if the rest of our material shows up when it’s supposed to,” she said.

If the process of planting wasn’t labour-intensive enough, emotions ran high with the flood’s traumatic toll.

“Every once in a while, you just cry at like a kitten on TV or something stupid where you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. Yeah. Well, I think that’s November making me cry,'” said MacVicar.

While the process has been stressful, MacVicar is optimistic and has faith.

“I believe my husband is a superhero,” she said, as her partner tilled soil outside.

Shealynn MacVicar shows the waterline from the flood.                                                                                         Photo: Sarah Williscraft

All of that preparation comes at the end of six gruelling months that started on Nov. 14.

MacVicar recalls that the evening seemed to simply be a rainy night at the time, but the Nicola River crept up over the dyke behind her property and overflowed from a neighbour’s land, too. The water eventually covered their farm by the afternoon of Nov. 15.

They spent the morning fielding phone calls about evacuating while gathering tools and animals to protect them from the rising water levels. At around 1 p.m., the family grabbed the bare necessities and left the farm behind.

“And we drove our pickup truck out in headlight-deep water. When it finally started coming in, it just was so fast that there was just enough time to save the animals and grab a bag and the kids and get the heck out of here,” she said.

“I’ve never experienced that feeling before where you leave your driveway and have absolutely no idea what you’re coming home to.”

Financial uncertainty over government relief funding

The family lost their harvesting equipment, fencing, chickens, pots, trays, and garden beds, among other equipment. Rebuilding has cost over $40,000 of their own money to date, which is around half of the cost of damages.

So far, they have received $3,000 in payments from AgriRecovery, a risk-mitigation program funded by provincial, federal and territorial governments for disaster relief. The program requires estimates before funding approval is processed on necessary items, like soil for their garden beds.

Six months into their recovery process, MacVicar still doesn’t know how much government money they will receive. The family could be going into debt and may not make the income needed to carry them through winter.

“I asked for quotes at the same time I told [companies] to send me the material. So maybe they’ll send me a cheque for it. Maybe they won’t. I don’t really know. But I can’t wait any longer,” she said

But, in spite of supply-chain logistics, complicated government funding, back-breaking labour and the emotional trauma of the flood, MacVicar believes the seeds of change are coming.

“We have everything we need. I’m feeling pretty good about the timeline right now, now that things are starting to show up.”

While the MacVicars sustained damage to much of their farm, the family’s home was elevated enough to avoid flood damage. Other residents lost their homes entirely.

Rental market destroyed 

 

Corey Buckley looks at the waterline on his former rental home.                                                                          Photo: Sarah Williscraft

Corey Buckley’s home is uninhabitable.

Buckley, along with his wife and dog, lived in a trailer close to the Coldwater River. They were evicted after the flood when their landlord issued a “frustrated tenancy eviction.” According to provincial regulations, a landlord can issue an eviction order when extraordinary events, like a flood or a fire, happen.

The family is trying to find a new home.

“I mean, a lot of places are destroyed or needed [to be] completely [gutted] and rebuilt,” said Buckley. Finding a rental hasn’t been easy.

He said he never suspected or thought that there would be a flood where he lived because of the dyke along the Coldwater.

Buckley said that not having a permanent residence has led to instability for himself, his wife and their dog, as they have been staying in a single room in a basement. What was recovered from their former home is being kept in storage at the sawmill where Buckley works, since they don’t have space where they are staying.

Buckley said he’s focused on staying busy outside of working and trying to find a new home. He looks forward to the summer dirt-biking season.

“That will be my stress relief. I call it throttle therapy,” he said.

 

Jennifer Biddlecome stands in front of her home that was condemned after November’s flooding.             Photo: Sarah Williscraft

Jennifer Biddlecome is trying to decide whether rebuilding her family home close to the river is worth the risk. Damage was so extensive, Biddlecome and her husband had to stabilize the frame of their house before they could enter. Their property backs onto the Coldwater River.

“So now when you walk in the front door, if you turn around [and look down], you can actually look right outside onto the ground. The floor itself is completely separated from the house,” said Biddlecome.

A sidewalk that once ran the length of their home was demolished by the flood. The floodwater swept remnants under the front of their house. Chunks of grey cement are visible where the foundation once stood. The family’s driveway was swallowed by a sinkhole that has since been fixed.

The family estimates they have spent $15,000 to stabilize their property, fill in soil and pay someone to log their items to determine the total cost of damages.

Biddlecome still has to pay basic bills for their home even though it’s uninhabitable.

Disaster Financial Assistance is one of the government programs that residents can access for financial relief. Biddlecome said that staff in the program have estimated $94,000 for “debris removal and the teardown of our house.”

But Biddlecome said that the payment is not really helping.

What do we do with that money? Do we bother doing anything and be stuck with this land? We don’t even know if the city will let us build here [again].”

She said the chances of another flood seem high.  “I think they’d be silly to give us building permits because we’re just going to go through it again.”

Jennifer Biddlecome’s backyard was also destroyed.                                  Photo: Sarah Williscraft
Planning for future flooding events 

The government of B.C.’s website notes that the province is investing to “build back better from fires and floods and to protect people and communities from future climate-related disasters.” The budget breakdown shows that a total of $83 million is going to be spread out amongst multiple initiatives, including provincial flood-plain mapping.

The Ministry of Environment said in an emailed statement that the province is “developing a new BC Flood Strategy, new Watershed Security Strategy, and rewriting the Emergency Program Act so we can better respond to emergencies of all kinds.”

But some experts say that B.C. is not doing enough.

“We had the disruption of the highway that knocked out things for, you know, the whole of the country, we had all of the animal-welfare issues, we had all of the stress of the folks who were evacuated. And none of those things are included in sort of more basic risk assessments because they’re hard to measure,” said Tamsin Lyle, a civil engineer who works in flood risk assessment.

She said that the funding provided by B.C. “is not actually very much” for the scope required to engage in flood mitigation.

Another expert said there are disparities in assessments across Canada.

Some cities, like Toronto, have “very well developed and mature technologies for flood-risk assessment,” according to Dr. Usman Khan, a professor of civil engineering. He suggests having a national flood forecasting and assessment system that would assist jurisdictions that have less robust infrastructure.

Another way to approach flood-risk relates to planning for floods with land-use regulations, according to Kh Md Nahiduzzaman, an urban planner and engineer. He said that adequate planning for flooding with land-use regulations and controls “is not in place.” Nahiduzzaman said this has led to “more reactive than proactive” responses to flooding.

He said that it’s difficult to extrapolate future flooding based on historical data “because we have so much disruptions [and] so much uncertainty involved. In one decade, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in a regular fashion.”

Nahiduzzaman advocates for high-precision tools for short-term precipitation modelling because rainfall can “be a key catalyst for floods.”

He said many communities do not have up-to-date flood-plain maps due to a lack of provincial and federal funding.

In terms of tangible solutions to the lack of preparedness for flooding in the province, Nahiduzzaman said communities need expertise, updated official community plans and land-use regulations.

In the absence of those bigger provincial and federal moves, many people who are rebuilding after the floods are taking on their own prevention efforts.

MacVicar said she’s protecting their crops and infrastructure by rebuilding the greenhouses at a higher elevation and using spray-foam insulation in their seeding building to keep water out. 

“We’re trying to make decisions on our property based on ‘What if that happens again?’ How can we not be so devastated? So that’s kind of our focus, trying build things that will be better moving forward,” she said

Before the flood, MacVicar said the goal was to operate year-round, providing sustainable local food.

“We lost our crops for the winter, but maybe next year…[we will offer product year-round]. It’s not sustainable to truck food from across the country. It’s not sustainable to ship it across an ocean. We’re trying to make it work here to prove to other people that it can be done, and then maybe more people will get into the industry.”