Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne has the land and he has a contractor all set to create a temporary camp for at least a tenth of the 300 or so people still displaced by the floods that ripped through southern B.C.
Now, nearly three months after the calamity, he is still waiting on more than a million dollars needed for this project – slated for a town-owned industrial park and which just needs to be connected to the sewage and water system. He expects the funds from either the province or through the federal-provincial flood recovery committee, which is steering the disbursement of $5-billion in aid pledged by Ottawa.
“For you and me, it’s a lot of money, but for something like this, it’s not,” Mr. Coyne recently told The Globe and Mail. “If Ottawa really wanted to help us, they could in a matter of minutes.
“We’re in complete disarray, every community knows what their costs are right now, so start flowing that money to the municipalities and the regional districts to get things fixed.”
Mayor Linda Brown and her nearby community of Merritt were contemplating setting up a similar camp for some of the more than 800 people still displaced after the Coldstream River tore through mobile homes and postwar bungalows in an affordable neighbourhood. But a survey of those still sleeping in hotels or surfing on friends’ couches returned a resounding rejection of this idea.
Instead, Ms. Brown says Merritt is planning to build a range of more permanent homes for the owners and renters of roughly 100 properties that “have a high likelihood of being permanently unlivable” because of catastrophic damage and their locations in areas where it may be too risky to rebuild.
Between zero rental vacancy rates and a years-long exodus of buyers from Metro Vancouver’s superheated market who are outcompeting locals, these two communities were already struggling to accommodate a total of roughly 10,000 people before November’s storm dropped a month’s worth of rain in just two days.
Now, these municipalities are still trying to house hundreds of displaced people in temporary homes that would allow them to stay in their communities. As the slow process of securing funding for this housing drags on, the mayors argue, people will continue to churn out of the official recovery safety net and opt to relocate elsewhere permanently.
“We’ve got people who have children that need to go to school, people that need to go back to their jobs, elders that need care – they’re just people that have to come back home,” said Ms. Brown, who once oversaw flood recovery efforts in Mozambique for the evangelical Christian aid group Samaritan’s Purse.
“And when we say to them ‘it’s another three to six months,’ it’s heartbreaking.”
Nic Defalco, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, did not answer a Globe question as to when the federal-provincial committee will begin releasing these funds. In fact, no money has been released yet after a historic heat dome and wildfires obliterated the town of Lytton and forced the evacuation of thousands across the province last summer. Nearly five months later, the devastating floods hit Canada’s West Coast.
Emergency Management BC said it is still working with Ottawa as well as municipal and First Nations governments to assess how much it will cost to rebuild housing, highways and other critical pieces of infrastructure damaged by the flooding. The first federal-provincial committee meeting was on Dec. 13 and another is scheduled for early this month, the provincial agency added in an e-mailed statement.
Ms. Brown says Merritt’s highest priority is getting housing for these people, an endeavour her city estimates will cost $27.5-million to build more than 200 units of long-term accommodation. These homes would include mobile homes (26), laneway houses (50) and tiny homes (100), she added.
The city’s proposal also includes selling some of the tiny and mobile homes to displaced people, which would recoup an estimated $16-million, Ms. Brown said. Merritt also wants to renovate an existing hotel into 35 units of rental housing, she added.
Grand Forks, a four-hour drive southeast to the U.S. border, offers a warning to other communities dotting B.C.’s rugged geography as they attempt to keep displaced members nearby in the wake of natural disasters, which are being exacerbated by climate change. In 2018, the Kettle and Granby Rivers overflowed and forced people out of 100 homes in a low-income neighbourhood there.
Mayor Brian Taylor says many of the people displaced four years ago have moved on to other communities after months of living in motels and awaiting further assistance from governments, he said. (Public Safety Canada confirmed that B.C. formally requested a preliminary payout from Ottawa nearly a year ago, but provincial officials were delayed in completing their paperwork by the cascading natural disasters that befell the province last year.)
“For the first year or so people were given options of living in motels, but it did wear thin and people didn’t want that any longer than necessary and found other arrangements,” Mr. Taylor said. “The most needy ended up, again, getting the least in the long run.”
The only people who have had new housing built for them were those given access two years ago to 54 rent-controlled units at a provincial housing agency development that was already being planned before the 2018 flood hit, he said.
Jennifer Biddlecome, her husband and two of their children, 14 and 9, moved from the Vancouver suburb of Mission to Merritt after purchasing their first family home in November, 2020, for $169,000.
A year later, they narrowly escaped as the Coldwater River flooded its banks and tore through their house and formed sinkholes over a third of the quarter acre they own, she said. Last month, they left their hotel room in Kelowna and returned to Merritt to live with a family friend so Ms. Biddlecome could continue working.
Now, they are weighing what to do with their house, one half of which was left teetering over a massive hole in the ground.
A government financial expert told her recently that because her house is a total loss, her family is only eligible to be reimbursed for 80 per cent of the latest assessed value for the physical structure on their property. That works out to $94,000, Ms. Biddlecome said.
“In order for us to just be able to put the dirt back in the land is going to cost us tens of thousands of dollars,” she said in a phone interview. “We wish they would just buy us out so we can just move on now.
“Ultimately our goal is to stay here in Merritt and purchase another property here clearly away from the flood area.”
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