Is our emergency preparation system flawed? Criticism growing on BC's flood response failures

Nov 17 2021, 6:50 am

When a critical pumping station was on the verge of failing in Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie region on Tuesday night, threatening to flood farms and put the lives of people and animals at risk, the city took to social media to try and warn residents to evacuate immediately.

The BC Government’s Alert Ready emergency system — which could have sent out a mobile alert to every cell phone in the region, as well as cut into radio and TV broadcasts with the evacuation alert — sat silent.

The government only uses it for tsunamis, so this “catastrophic” event did not qualify.

It was up to the City of Abbotsford to get the word out by itself, with its mayor and local emergency officials holding an impromptu press briefing late Tuesday night on the city’s YouTube channel — the makeshift event a far cry from the enormous reach of the provincial government’s largely quiet communications apparatus.

“Get out of the area,” pleaded Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun on the social media broadcast.

“I know it’s hard for farmers to leave their livestock, but people’s lives are more important to me right now than livestock or chickens.”

animals abbotsford

Aerial footage of farm flooding in Abbotsford, BC / Sophia Middleton

BC promised to expand the Alert Ready system after the summer’s heat dome killed 595 people, and the government found itself under fire for not doing enough to reach out to people before the emergency started to warn them to seek help in cooling centres.

But then the weekend flooding started, and instead of the broadcast system being ready for prime time it was scheduled to undergo a simple “test” message Wednesday (which was later cancelled after the real emergency started).

The province issued a statement late Tuesday night claiming it was “ready and available to issue a broadcast intrusive alert through the Alert Ready system” but that the “City of Abbotsford has indicated that it does not want to issue an alert at this time.”

B.C.’s emergency management system is a complicated mix of local emergency declarations, provincial powers and federal military assistance. The confusion over when, how and even if it could use Alert Ready are just one of several criticisms facing the provincial government over its response to the historic flood.

“The Alberta government told people to stay home on the weekend in response to this incoming weather system,” Green MLA Sonia Furstenau said in the legislature Tuesday, as she hammered the provincial response.

“On Friday, Washington State issued flood warnings and distributed free sandbags in counties forecasted to be heavily impacted. They were proactive, and they minimized loss… Were we hit by this storm worse than expected, or is our emergency preparation system flawed?”

She also chastised politicians for not viewing the disasters through the lens of worsening climate change.

Considerable time lost

Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman said the province failed to take seriously the risk of an overflowing Nooksack River in Sumas Prairie, which he warned about Monday morning.

“I listened to government talk about preparedness and I brought up the Nooksack River, which had flooded in 1990, and I basically got blank stares,” he said of a briefing with provincial emergency officials.

That lack of preparedness meant BC didn’t seriously warn farmers in the province’s key food-producing region that their equipment, crops and animals were at risk and needed to be evacuated.

“There was considerable time lost,” said Banman, noting many farmers were stuck with dangerously high water levels and cattle they couldn’t evacuate. When Tuesday’s nights emergency evacuation order hit, they were forced to leave it all behind — a devastating blow to an area that produces 50 per cent of BC’s dairy products.

“There are literally volunteers out there in boats right now,” said Banman. “Two days (warning) gives you enough time to go move that equipment to somebody’s farm on higher ground.”

Public Safety Minster Mike Farnworth has found himself on the defensive over whether the provincial government provided enough warning to as many people as possible about the dangers of the coming storm.

At least one person has died after their vehicle was washed off the road near Lillooet, and the RCMP say two more are reported missing.

“There was significant warning, in terms of weather and the rain that was out in the media and on the weather networks,” Farnworth said Tuesday, when asked about shortfalls in alerts, including Alert Ready.

“All of that was taking place. But we also saw what was an absolutely unprecedented torrential deluge like we’ve never seen before.”

Still though, BC’s response appeared slower than its neighbours. 

Weather forecasts had warned of heavy rainfall on the weekend. But what manifested was a one-in-100-year weather event, where communities like Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Hope saw the wettest single day in their history, according to Environment Canada.

The heavy rain overwhelmed drains, flooded homes, washed out roadways and bridges, triggered landslides, and turned much of the agricultural areas of the Fraser Valley region into lakes. The province’s largest highway, the Coquihalla, broke in half near Hope.

While the government did keep people up to date on road closures through social media, and its DriveBC website (which at one point crashed due to the heavy traffic), critics say had it done more earlier on the weekend to keep people off the roads, it perhaps may have led to fewer of the hundreds of people stranded on highways in the interior who needed to be rescued.

Farnworth has repeatedly addressed criticism by pointing out that BC’s disaster system relies on local communities to first declare an emergency and then ask for provincial help. Local officials know best how to respond, he said.

But during the floods Monday, that system resulted in a mess of different declarations, municipally and regionally. By Tuesday evening, BC still had not declared its own provincial state of emergency.

It was even more confusing for highways, with many of the major routes controlled by the province but other stretches under municipal authority. 

At its worst point Monday night, one group of stranded motorists on Highway 7 near Agassiz was rescued by military helicopters because officials asked the federal government for help, while another group on the same highway closer to Hope were waiting for provincial assistance and the RCMP.

Banman, a former mayor of Abbotsford, said leaving local emergencies up to local governments has its limits, because emergency preparedness and sharing of information is best handled by the province.

“We need a partner that’s not asleep at the switch,” he said.

BC failed on its emergency response to the heat dome this summer, but few anticipated just how severe the recent rainfall would be and the resulting landslides and flooding, said John Clague, chair of the Centre for Natural Hazard Research at Simon Fraser University. 

“As far as flooding goes I do think we’ve dropped the ball in a proactive sense,” he said.

“Obviously parts of Princeton and Merritt were within the limits of a 200 year flood and I don’t know if you blame the provincial government for that or local governments, but I think the provincial government should take a larger responsibility.

“They’ve kind of passed the torch on to municipalities and that has not been a very good decision.”

Weather forecasters say the peak levels for flooding in most of the province have receded from Monday’s high, and the worst is over. 

But the government will continue to face criticism and questions about its response. 

Farnworth said he’s working on an overhaul of BC’s emergency law, which should be ready next year.

In the meantime, Clague, who has been studying the natural disaster field in BC for decades, says his confidence in how the province would respond to the long-awaited and often-discussed worst-case scenario of a major earthquake has been shaken by how the government has stumbled on the heat dome and flooding disasters.

“This has caught me – I thought we were doing a lot better on the earthquake front,” he said. 

“And now I’m not convinced.”

Rob ShawRob Shaw

+ News
+ Politics