'The work has been hell': A year after the atmospheric river flooding event in Princeton and residents are still healing from the trauma

'The work has been hell'

Casey Richardson

UPDATE: 5:25 p.m.

One year after floods swept into Princeton and forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes, the town still has a long way to go before a full recovery.

Mayor Spencer Coyne said Tuesday that while things may look better, there are many hidden hardships. Potable water is still unavailable for many residents, awaiting permitting to get the infrastructure construction going. Apartment buildings devastated by floods are left in disrepair, along with homes.

Even those who have managed to finish most of the repairs and get back into their homes are dealing with the post-traumatic stress from that horrific day.

“Right now is a really fragile time being the anniversary of the flood last year. So you know, there's a lot of people right now that are, I don't want to say struggling but they're having a hard time with it,” Coyne said.

“Princeton's still struggling emotionally and physically,” resident Rhonda Warner said. “It has changed a lot of people. Some people that would walk down the street and they would give a big, cheery, 'Hi', now stare at the ground. Because they've had no help, or whatever their circumstances are.”

Warner’s home was completely destroyed a year ago.

“The work has been hell. I can't do much but clean as much as I can. And I'm so sick and tired of mud it’s not even funny. Because everything has that silt in it. And then everything that was saved, ended up with drywall dust in it and construction crap.”

Her more-than 100-year-old home has now been upgraded with repairs to be better prepared in the event of another flood, a positive she points out amidst all the hardships.

Resident Ron Carlson had his basement completely full of water, the heater and electrical panel ruined and water coming up a foot on the main floor during the floods. All of his family's belongings were ruined.

“We're still trying to get fully recovered. But I mean, you do what you can and it's been a long battle, but at least we're back at our home,” he said.

The traumatizing night when freezing water came flooding through homes still lingers on residents' minds and adds to their worries for the future.

“It was quite an experience and then we just had a flashback of it the other day, the wife posted a picture of the water around here that day. So it brings back some pretty crappy memories,” Carlson said.

“It's scary. I don't have another flood in me. I don't. It was the closest thing I've come to being crazy I think in my entire life,” Warner said.

Mayor Coyne said it will be a long time before the community gets back its sense of normalcy.

“When you say atmospheric river, there are people that go into panic mode, because they think they're gonna lose everything again. So if there's a message for the greater world out there, it's remembering that there are people on the other end of that and those people are still trying to cope with what happened.”

One sticking point for Princeton’s mayor was the lack of help from the federal government, despite the pleas from local MPs.

“The provincial government has really stepped up and they've been there just about every single time I've asked for assistance,” he said. “I'm still disappointed in the federal government. We still haven't seen anybody from the federal government in our community. There's been no minister, there has been no prime minister. None of those guys have come to town. They've been close.

“They've been in Merritt. They've been to Summerland. They've been to other places, but they haven't come to Princeton. My residents feel abandoned.”

Heading forward, the town infrastructure still needs significant upgrades.

“Probably 60-plus per cent of our community has no drinking water still. And if it's because of red tape. That's a problem, right? The province has given us the money to fix the problem. Now it's another arm of the province that's saying, 'You got to do this, this and this,'” Coyne said.

“My staff keep telling me ‘Okay, we're gonna get there.’ But, I'm frustrated and the residents are frustrated. And we need to find a way to fast-track some of these things as long as they're done right.”

This past year has shown Coyne the gaps in government and emergency services, especially in looking after evacuees, pointing to when Red Cross took over local ESS operations.

“That's been a big bone of contention for our team. We don't feel that information was shared adequately with us when the transition happened,” he added.

In a statement to Castanet, the Canadian Red Cross said they continue to provide personalized recovery support to 69 households from the town of Princeton that were impacted by the floods and extreme weather events.

“The Red Cross has been working directly with people to discuss their unique needs and help them navigate their recovery journey and access available supports, such as financial assistance for housing repair and reconstruction, as well as temporary accommodations and basic needs while they transition to longer-term housing.”

They have also been helping people by providing mental health and well-being supports, as well as referrals to other counselling services and programs, and financial assistance for replacing uninsured content and clean up kits.

“As part of our long-term commitment to support community recovery, the Red Cross launched in July 2022 the Red Cross Support to Small Businesses and Not-for-Profit Program to help eligible small business owners and not-for-profit organizations that were directly impacted by the 2021 BC floods with financial support of $5,000.”

The Red Cross Princeton Resiliency Centre located at 224 Bridge Street in Princeton remains open to support individuals and families that were impacted by last year’s floods.

Those that have been impacted by the 2021 BC floods and extreme weather event and would like to inquire about any of these supports are encouraged to contact the Red Cross by calling 1-800-863-6582 from Monday to Friday between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. PST to request an appointment with a case manager.

Coyne hopes the provincial government will sit down with town representatives to go over what worked and what didn't.

Carlson, standing by the home he fought hard to recover from the water, feels the same.

“Hopefully, everybody who needs to listen is listening, so we can resolve some of the problems for the future."

ORIGINAL: 4 a.m.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022 is a somber anniversary for Princeton and the surrounding Similkameen Valley communities.

Overnight on this day in 2021, much of the town and surrounding communities found themselves inundated with floodwaters.

It was part of an ongoing unprecedented weather event, an atmospheric river, that had already swept through Merritt, and would over the course of several days destroy portions of the Coquihalla and other Interior highways, flood the Sumas prairie and cut the Lower Mainland off by road.

On the evening of Nov. 14 last year, local authorities in the Similkameen noted the quickly swelling Similkameen and Tulameen Rivers and began issuing evacuation alerts and orders.

Overnight, intense rainfall and steadily rising waters meant that by daybreak Nov.15, much of Princeton was flooded.

Power was disrupted to the Town of Princeton early in the morning. The town's emergency management department advised residents around 2 a.m. to start storing water.

A major dike breached. Roads washed away, bridges sustained damage. Small communities along local rivers in the region were evacuated. And still the rain fell, and waterways raged.

"I've been here all my life. We've never had a flood this like this yet. I talked to a gentleman today, been here 65 years, he said he's never seen one like this," Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne said that day.

Now, one year later, the ground is dry but some locals have felt it has been an ongoing, constant fight for recovery funding from higher levels of government in the wake of the disaster.

In the meantime, many in town spent the coldest winter months sifting through debris, some still without power.

Member of Parliament Dan Albas nicknamed the Similkameen "The Forgotten Valley" in February 2022, calling for faster federal aid. Mayor Coyne also vehemently called for provincial and federal help.

It took until April 2022 for Princeton to receive approval for $11.9 million in federal funds for desperately needed infrastructure fixes.

Temporary housing for seniors displaced by the floods came in September.

Mayor Spencer Coyne recently ran successfully for re-election, citing infrastructure repair as the number one ongoing concern in the town, with affordable housing, especially in the wake of the flood displacement, a close second.

Castanet reporter Casey Richardson is on her way to Princeton this morning to be on the ground one year later, speak to citizens and politicians about what has been done, and see what still lies ahead for the recovering region.

More to come.

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