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On anniversary of B.C.’s catastrophic floods, some farmers face years of recovery

One year ago, a series of massive rain storms was barrelling into B.C., causing landslides and catastrophic flooding that wiped out highways and railways and covered large tracts of the Fraser Valley in water.

Five people were killed, and there were hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and damage, including livestock and crops in the hard-hit Sumas Prairie, as farmland was inundated by water from the overflowing Sumas and Nooksack rivers.

Approximately 15,000 hectares of land was impacted on the former lake bed, with 1,100 properties under evacuation order or alert

Poultry farmer Corry Spitters says his operation was devastated by flooding, drowning almost 200,000 chickens and destroying and damaging more than $1 million in farm equipment. Spitters says all he could do was stand and watch as flood waters from a breached dike approached his barns.

“Mother Nature takes control. What can you do? The water comes in and there’s nothing you can do,” he told CityNews.

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He says nobody wants to see drowning chickens but at the time he was thankful it was the birds and not his family facing the flood.

Blueberry grower Harry Sidhu says his family’s farm also faced big losses, as did others in the region, as the extended flooding destroyed their plants’ root systems.

“It’s a bit of a unique situation [with blueberries]. It’s a crop that takes 10 years to get to maturity, so it’s like starting all over again,” he said.

Sidhu says blueberry farmers are struggling after the flooding, dealing with mental and emotional challenges, they are stressed out and exhausted.

“It’s been very difficult for producers on the Sumas Prairie … I think we are impacted in a different way. Ten years is a long time to get back. That’s if you can get back.”

The province has approved more than $41 million in funding to help recovery efforts after last November’s flooding.

The funding to repair and restore sites along waterways includes more than $1.6 million dollars dedicated to permanent repairs to a dike in Abbotsford that was breached.

The Blueberry Council of BC says more than 140 blueberry farms have received about $18 million in funding through the AgriRecovery program for expenses not covered by ongoing, annual insurance and income protection programs.

“I think it’s a great start, in the right direction, but I don’t think the funds are going to be enough,” says Sidhu, who feels the province needs to take better stock of the dike system and pumping stations that protects parts of the Fraser Valley.

“I think a lot of growers and producers feel some of the stuff that has been done to date is more of a band-aid. It’s going to take some extreme efforts for us to have confidence. An event like this could very well happen again, maybe even this year,” he said.

Climate experts agree, warning the next such storm may come sooner rather than later. University of Victoria climate scientist Francis Zwiers says human-induced climate change has increased the probability of an event like the November 2021 storm by up to 50 per cent.

Zwiers says the storm might previously have been categorized as a once-in-50- or 100-year event, but it is now more likely a once-in-12-years phenomenon.

More than 200 millimetres of rain drenched parts of the province over about 48 hours in early November, triggering the disaster that killed five people and caused $675 million in insured losses.

The rains broke dikes and inundated farmland, cut major highways and railways, and forced thousands to flee.

The provincial government says permanent repairs to dikes are expected to be complete by next month, most dairy and poultry farms are back to normal, and washed-out highways have reopened. But Sidhu says recovering blueberry producers still have a long road ahead.

“My family farm and other family farms have been heavily impacted and there are a lot of unknowns to come yet. We are hoping that there will be a better recovery package.”

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