Washed-out roads and ruined bridges are just some of the devastation plaguing residents of the western province and could signal what climate change will bring in the future.
PRINCETON, British Columbia – With light drizzle in the air, a young woman wiped her tears as she stood on the porch of a newly renovated gray and white house. The toilets and other sanitary facilities were next to her. Most of the other contents of the house lay in a muddy heap on the street.
Three doors down, a chain of soldiers in camouflage green suits piled sandbags on a rock-and-earth embankment meant to keep the Tulameen River out of the humble homes on Allison Avenue. The engine noise and backward warning beeps from a small excavator filled the air as it scraped mud, soggy mattresses, end tables, chairs, tools and VHS tapes from children’s cartoons.
The heavy rainfall that caused flooding in Princeton and southern British Columbia was the third major natural disaster this part of Canada has experienced in six months — the likely cumulative effects of climate change, according to climate experts.
Record-breaking heatwaves, floods and bushfires have claimed the lives of hundreds of British Colombians and highlighted Canada’s vulnerability to extreme weather. On their own, each event has caused widespread devastation, but they may be even deeper, according to researchers, because they followed each other in this order, causing so-called “compound effects.”
Western Canada suffered a blistering heat wave for much of the summer as record high temperatures sparked uncontrolled wildfires that burned a community to the ground.
Now the region faces faded roads and highways, mud-clogged homes and ruined bridges after nearly a foot of rain poured out from a weather event known as an atmospheric river — long bands of water vapor that form across the Pacific Ocean and drift each other. fall and winter to North America. Forecasts of more torrential rainfall for this week have sparked renewed flood concerns and led to precautionary closures of highway routes that had just reopened.
“We haven’t had so many atmospheric rivers reaching the coast in such a short time,” said Rachel White, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies how large-scale atmospheric patterns contribute to extreme weather. “The scary possibility is that climate change is making these more likely and more frequent.”
Last week, Bonnie and Bryan Webber finished cramming the last of their salvageable possessions into a small pickup truck after floods destroyed their 700-square-foot home, which sits right next to the levee in Princeton, a city of 2,800. lies.
They bought their home 22 years ago and moved out of the Vancouver area shortly after, when Mr. Webber retired from the city’s sewerage and drainage division.
“I just can’t believe it’s been 12 days,” Mrs. Webber said last Thursday, with a tingle of bewilderment and exhaustion in her voice. “Everyone is now overwhelmed with emotions and it is also physically demanding. Everyone needs help.”
At least 12,000 British Colombians were left displaced by the floods this week, most with no clear return date. Some communities remained evacuated. Schools and a major railroad were closed. And large stretches of highways critical to transporting goods from Vancouver to the rest of Canada have been closed by landslides, flooding, washouts and bridge collapses. Partial reopenings are for some highways in a few weeks and full restoration will take months, maybe longer.
The cost remains a gamble.
“This won’t be cheap, that’s for sure,” said Ian Pilkington, the county’s chief highway engineer. “But even at this point, we’re still assessing and trying to figure out what to do.”
For many people in the province, there is a nagging fear that weather conditions are a sign of what climate change will bring.
Sam Parara, a bus driver in Vancouver, planned to start a new life in a Princeton house he had recently bought and was renovating. Carrying a pile of objects so covered in mud that they were unidentifiable to the curb, Mr Parara said he was concerned about the long-term ramifications of the weather disasters in his province.
“I’ve heard David Suzuki talk about climate change for a long time,” he said, referring to the Canadian broadcaster, geneticist and environmentalist. “The climate is suddenly very unpredictable,” he said. “Maybe we should think about doing things in a different way.”
Experts don’t know if this year’s weather is a direct result of climate change. However, many say they are sure that climate change has exacerbated the effects.
For example, the drought dried up vegetation, which in turn fueled and exacerbated the fires. Fire itself can weaken or kill plants and make the soil less permeable, making it more likely that rain will run off and not set in. This could create conditions for the types of dangerous landslides and mudslides that have been observed in recent weeks.
While atmospheric rivers are the main source of rainfall along the west coast, models show that atmospheric river storms are likely to amplify and intensify due to warmer air, which can hold more moisture.
Two weeks ago, a pair of atmospheric river storms hit British Columbia in quick succession. “Those back-to-back storms are where we have the greatest impact,” said Marty Ralph, the director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. dr. Ralph noted that the second storm came to a halt, which could cause extended rainfall in one location. Those conditions “were kind of a kicker that pushed things over the edge.”
As the water raced down the mountainsides in the region and then along the Fraser River to Vancouver, its destruction took many forms.
In the town of Merritt, a river had entered the sewage treatment plant, forcing all 5,300 residents to be evacuated. The stream cut a new path for the river through town, overturning a bridge, swept one mobile home downstream and partially submerging another while destroying parts of the drinking water system.
Much of the ranchland of the nearby Shackan First Nation was consumed by a swollen river. Not only has the road to the area disappeared, chief Arnold Lampreau said, the spring runoff could reveal new flooding dangers.
The Trans Mountain pipeline, which connects Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in Washington state and a port in suburban Vancouver, was left with several sections exposed or submerged. No leaks were reported, but the pipeline operator shut it down, hoping to reopen at least partially this week.
Mr Pilkington, chief of road construction engineer, has used helicopters to transport equipment and workers to otherwise inaccessible areas in need of rebuilding.
It could take until the new year for the temporary repairs on some major roads to be completed, he said. But the long-term repairs will be guided by a new approach: climate forecasting, rather than historical data, to determine bridge heights, culvert sizes and drainage system capacity.
“To realize now that historical data is irrelevant and that if you rely on it, you’re going to fall under the design every time — that’s interesting for engineers who have to turn their heads,” he said.
Despite the devastation, Princeton was alive with cleanup efforts last week. Volunteers, often from nearby communities, roamed in disposable white suits and helped residents remove soggy appliances, sewer-contaminated mud and soggy drywall.
Amid the mud, a group of educators commuted to town every day and set a table with trays of homemade sandwiches and pastries, as well as large pots of soup for the clean-up volunteers and residents.
“In the spring with the runoff you expect, you look, but come on, this never happens in November,” said Denise Cook, who grew up in Princeton and came back as a volunteer. “I never thought it would be as bad as this. It’s bad. People sitting here at home watching, have no idea.”
Vjosa Isai and Winston Choi-Schagrin reported.