For British Columbia, 2021 was a year of extreme weather. Be it the daunting forest fires, record-breaking heatwaves, or intense cold thanks to the Arctic-outflow, communities were impacted like never before. In November of last year, a permanently-altering catastrophe was seen by the residents of B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Torrential rains engulfed the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia was declared to be in a State of Emergency, as the province battled mudslides, highway closures, trapped citizens, and excessive flooding.
The onset of the rainstorm was predicted by meteorologists, but no travel advisories or flood warnings were put in place during initial stages. As conditions worsened, many were left stranded on major highways, and returned home days after having spent multiple nights in their cars during severe downpour. However, some Abbotsford residents have seemingly lost their homes forever, specifically considering the evacuation of 1,100 homes in the Sumas Prairie.
Evacuee Jaswant Singh Dhillon still remembers going to work just like any other day. A concerned neighbor warned Jaswant Singh Dhillon of increasing traffic in the area and asked him to come back home sooner than later. His wife alerted him that the usual route would be blocked by the police, so Jaswant Singh Dhillon attempted to use an alternate route, as he was familiar with the ins and outs of his city. To his dismay, Jaswant Singh Dhillon still encountered roadblocks and was not able to pass, despite pleading to gather important paperwork, passport, and medications from his home. Rightfully so, police were concerned that there would be no way to rescue residents if they got stuck. That night, Jaswant Singh Dhillon and his family took shelter at his brother-in-law’s home.
With Jaswant Singh Dhillon’s house built approximately six feet higher than farm ground, he had never anticipated the water to accumulate inside his home. However, reality began seeping in when news reached Jaswant Singh Dhillon of his home being drowned by contaminated, toxic floodwater and the failure of Sumas Prairie’s water and sewage infrastructure. “I had built my dream home gathering money through years of hard work, with expensive furnishings worth thousands of dollars. We’ve lost everything – from mattresses to memories. I’ve literally seen snakes floating around in what are now unsalvageable personal belongings. It is absolutely heartbreaking for our family and many others.”, expresses Jaswant Singh Dhillon.
The cause of the flooding can be attributed to a failed critical Sumas dike, which should come as no surprise, as the dike was deemed “unacceptable”, according to engineer-released survey reports from five years ago. In fact, Henry Braun, Mayor of Abbotsford, admitted to the city having known that the Sumas River dike was dangerously low, but the cost to repair was unaffordable for the municipality. Now, damages have reached astronomical numbers.
Given these circumstances, devastated residents such as Jaswant Singh Dhillon are urging the government to take responsibility and showcase accountability, “The dike should have been addressed long ago. I pay my taxes, pay fines when I make mistakes, and pay hefty property taxes for living in a flood zone. I am a Canadian citizen. Why is the government not holding our hands in times of need?” Jaswant Singh Dhillon expresses that any promised government funding is significantly incapable of even beginning to cover losses, with hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by Jaswant Singh Dhillon’s family alone. Furthermore, much of the financial aid to be made available comes with conditions, or the requirement of submitting invoices, which residents simply do not have for the entirety of financial damages. The financial stress is burdening to families, who are being forced to spend out-of-pocket, making it virtually impossible to get back on their feet. Insurance companies have denied coverage and Jaswant Singh Dhillon has had to personally pay even for the basics, like garbage disposal, cleaning, washing, and sanitization.
“Say the evacuated families pitch in and spend thousands of dollars to hire someone for creating a report on residential damages, as the government has asked of us. There is still a chance that authorities do not accept the standards or findings of the report. That will be a sunk cost for us, which we simply cannot afford. Why can’t the government itself hire a third party? We have requested decision-makers to physically tour the area, but only time will tell when that happens. Without help from the government, there is no way to rebuild ourselves. For example, my berries were underwater for almost a month; they cannot be replenished.”, Jaswant Singh Dhillon elaborates. Clearly, the situation is pressing. At a time when families decorate their homes for seasonal celebrations, residents of the Sumas Prairie were left with broken homes. Despite the lack of action from the government regarding financial support, Jaswant Singh Dhillon remains thankful to the community’s love and care. Although he makes clear that the support the Sumas Prairie families have received thus far is not monetary, the community’s encouragement has kept him and other flood victims going.
In the spirit of community support, listeners of Vancouver’s South Asian radio station, CKYE 93.1 & 89.1 RED FM successfully raised over $955,000 to help with the relief and recovery for those who were impacted by the flooding in British Columbia. RED FM’s President and CEO, Kulwinder Sanghera, thanks all the donors for their generosity, “The South Asian community never cease to surprise me with their big hearts. They never get tired of giving back and helping during difficult times”. The funds raised, though not directly received by the residents of the Sumas Prairie specifically, will benefit Canadian Red Cross, enabling them to carry out relief, recovery, resiliency, and risk reduction activities, as needed, in and beyond the region at the individual and community levels.
RED FM’s Program Director, Pooja Sekhon, recalls community members eagerly reaching out to RED FM themselves, before the radiothon was even announced, to proactively ask how they can help. Many donated anonymously, with no desire for recognition or tax receipts. “As a community radio station, we fully empathize with the impacted families and recognize that we ought to do whatever we can to lend a helping hand. We understand that the situation is not one that will last just a few weeks. No matter how many months or years recovery takes, RED FM is here to support.”, Sekhon assures.
World Financial Group’s executives also played their part by organizing a successful flood relief food drive to support victims, in partnership with other community organizations. Groceries for the first day itself exceeded $35,000 in value. Executive Vice Chairman, Kanwaldeep Singh Sadhu details, “Multiple planes were airlifted carrying essential items including blankets, socks, pet food, diapers, bottled water, powder milk, juice, snacks, and other non-perishable foods. With the help of associates, volunteers, and generous community members, we were able to maximize our support to flood-affected areas. We are always committed to standing by our community in times of need.”
While Jaswant Singh Dhillon has the utmost gratitude and appreciation for the unparalleled community support, he now appeals for the community to help in pushing the government to take responsibility. Given that the Sumas dike’s arguably foreseen failure was a key propellant of the devastation that ensued, he is asking the government to provide robust financial assistance. Jaswant Singh Dhillon pleads, “We do not want money in pieces. We need a package to compensate us for damages faced – not a penny less, not a penny more. There are systems place; if overcompensation is an issue, money can always be taken back by the government if such a case occurs. We are not at fault here – the government clearly is. We should not be paying fees, but rather given money upfront to begin recovery. We have lost more than just our homes and are now left at the mercy of systems and policies. The residents of the Sumas Prairie seek support from our government and ask for them to be held accountable.”
There is no question that support will be needed both from the community and the government to restore what once was a bustling, thriving population of residents in the Sumas Prairie area. With 640,000 livestock deaths and 14,800 people forced to flee their homes because of the floods, it is imperative that British Columbia must take all measures to ensure city infrastructures are prepared to handle extreme weather conditions, moving forward. As the Sumas Prairie residents and other impacted individuals pave their path to recovery, the community stands with them in solidarity.