Temporary bridges that will help restore traffic along British Columbia’s vital Coquihalla Highway have begun arriving in the province after this month’s historic rainstorm.
It’s still uncertain how much longer the highway will be closed as a result of the damage, but its reopening is a priority. The Coquihalla is an important commercial supply route, and as such has been the focus of much attention since an “atmospheric river” flooded towns, caused mudslides and rendered several highways impassable.
One of those that has not received much notice is Highway 8 in the province’s Interior. While aerial shots of collapsed portions of the Coquihalla have been distributed widely, images of the destruction along Highway 8 have not.
However, it’s when you see pictures of it that you begin to comprehend the scope of the rebuilding job at hand.
Helicopter pilot Bradley Friesen flew over the scene last week and posted video to social media. It is staggering. Several long sections of the highway simply don’t exist any more, their remains presumably lying somewhere in the Nicola River that runs beside it.
Government officials are in the process of determining the extent of the damage. No estimates have been released on how much it will cost to rebuild but it’s hard to imagine it won’t be billions. The Royal Bank of Canada estimates the cost of repairs related to the disaster to be at least $7.5-billion. That seems low.
So far, the bodies of four people killed in mudslides have been recovered. One person is still missing. Meantime, people have begun returning to flood-ravaged homes. With more rain in the forecast, however, communities remain on high alert. All of which is to say that while it may be too early to start talking about the grubby subject of money, it’s a conversation that is going to have to happen soon.
And it’s not just the cost of repairs that need to be discussed. It’s also the cost of mitigation and the upgrades to critical levees and other infrastructure that are needed in the face of climate change. The adaptation improvements for which multiple reports, stretching back years, have been calling.
What happened in B.C. was a tragedy, unquestionably. But it was also a tragic failure of leadership by successive provincial governments. The dikes that were breached in Abbotsford were long forecast to fail. A B.C. government report in 2015 found that 71 per cent of 75 dikes in the Lower Mainland were vulnerable to breakdown.
Another report published three years before that pegged the cost of dike improvements in just one area of the Lower Mainland at nearly $10-billion. Yet nothing was done.
In 2018, the B.C. Auditor-General said the government lacked an adequate plan to manage the risks posed by climate change. This, despite the fact that forest-fire seasons were growing longer and that high-volume, destabilizing rain events such as the one that took place last week have long been predicted to increase.
Still, no plan. Government after government just kept gambling with people’s lives. The B.C. Ministry of Environment says a climate preparedness and adaption strategy should be ready some time next year. Another report – same as all the others that were ignored.
This is madness. Premier John Horgan can say that “even the experts were … surprised” at what happened with the rainstorm, but that’s not true. The “experts” have been issuing warnings. The “experts” were saying the government long ago needed to begin urgently upgrading critical infrastructure.
A report issued last year by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices said the number of catastrophic weather events in this country were three times higher this past decade than in the 1980s. And the average cost of each disaster had jumped 1,250 per cent since the 1970s.
So there is an economic incentive to take action. The Mayor of Abbotsford, Henry Braun, estimates it will cost north of $1-billion to repair the damage caused by the breach of the levees in his city – levees that should have been fortified and upgraded years ago at far less cost.
We are in the midst of a climate emergency. This is not theoretical and hasn’t been for some time. But if people needed hard evidence of the dire consequences of ignoring climate change, they have it.
The B.C. government needs to sit down with Ottawa and municipalities in the province to establish a comprehensive climate adaptation plan that begins now. Not years from now. The price tag will be enormous, but we have no choice.
The crisis we are in is going to get worse before it gets better.
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