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A river in the sky

B.C. farmers who face devastating losses rally to support each other after severe November floods.

“We just left everything behind . . . we might need to accept your offer to stay.”

My heart sank for my friends as I read the text. We had been praying and anxiously receiving updates about the water levels rising near their farm, then onto their yard, then into their basement. The entire area was flooding, and quickly!

Within a few hours, the Tuin family was trapped on their property near the Nooksack River as all roads around them were submerged. So they parked their vehicles on railway tracks – the highest ground – and then Ron and Tracey and two of their children walked along the tracks and over a railway bridge until someone could rescue them.

“It was unreal. I think I am in stunned shock,” Tracey texted as they made their way to our home in Chilliwack, B.C. Their family received one of the first evacuation orders that would eventually impact approximately 800 other properties in the Sumas Prairie, formerly known as the Sumas Lake, which had been drained in 1925 to create fertile farmland in the valley. Some farmers had time to hastily move their livestock to higher, dryer places. Others were not so fortunate and had to walk away from their homes, animals, crops and property, not knowing what would remain when they returned.

Southern B.C. is known for its rainy weather. We joke about not having to shovel it and never needing to wash our cars. But on November 13 and 14, 2021, the sheer volume of torrential rains that poured down on the Fraser Valley was almost unfathomable. Over the course of two days, an entire month’s amount of rain was dumped onto the lower mainland, an area already saturated from heavier than normal rainfall during September and October. Meteorologists called this event an “atmospheric river” – basically, a column of vapor that acts like a pipe in the sky that can transport massive amounts of water.

Within a week, three of these rivers descended on our province, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in their wake. Mountainsides gave way, causing mudslides, breaking highways and bridges in half and trapping motorists for days. Eventually the pressure on the dikes became too much and they broke in several places, causing even more devastating flooding and a potentially catastrophic risk to the pumping station that was working in overdrive to combat the rising water. Water flowed back into the prairie, the former lake reclaiming its territory.

After the dikes broke

This was when Alison and John Arends and their family, owners of Crossroads Dairy, knew they had to evacuate. But moving their elderly parents through the two-metre-high water was going to be a challenge. They got creative, lifting the seniors in their wheelchairs into the front bucket of a loader to be transported out to a safe and dry home in Chilliwack.

Nearby, Grant and Amanda Bouwman also heard the news of the dikes giving out. They had been working hard to keep the water at bay with pumps and berms. November 16 was a sunny day, and Amanda felt thankful that the worst of the storm was over. Grant, on the other hand, felt the need to start moving their cows soon because more water was coming. As cattle trailers began to arrive on their property, reality set in for Amanda. Twenty minutes later police arrived with evacuation orders. How would they move all their cows?

“We had 10 animals left and we got a call saying that they closed down the only bridge in and out of the prairie. We couldn’t believe the police would do this to us farmers. After saying some silent prayers, a rainbow appeared; the sky was beautiful. Then a truck pulled in from out of nowhere saying that he had room for 10 more animals if we needed! We almost started crying. God provides!!”

Two days later the Bouwmans discovered that their home had flooded and their farm was under water. They had made the right call to leave.

“Saturday was the hardest day. Grant went to the house and called me as he waded through the basement. I cried and cried. We had just finished redoing the basement and I loved it. And now it was gone.”

Grant and Amanda and their four children spent the next few weeks displaced from their home and from each other as Grant stayed near their cows, and Amanda and the kids found temporary housing. They were thankful to be able to return to their home in December, where they are now facing weeks and months of cleanup and rebuilding, like so many others.

Praying for protection

In the meantime, the Tuin family received word that although their home had flooded, their barn with their cows had somehow remained above water. Maybe the cows, who desperately needed to be milked, would survive! A few texts later, and Ron was offered the last spot on a helicopter ride to get back to their farm, where he was able save the animals and help some of his neighbours who had also returned and were working hard to rescue their farms.

“Seeing God line up people and circumstances at just the perfect time was humbling and amazing. Being part of such a caring community and being so supported in so many big and small ways (especially after the disconnect of life during COVID-19) was a huge blessing,” Tracey said.

“Hearing police sirens and instructions over loudspeakers to evacuate the area immediately felt surreal. So much anxiety, disbelief and fear but we knew we did all that we could and prayed as a family on the top of our driveway as we left our home and farm behind. All through that night we prayed over and over for wisdom and protection. As scary and difficult as those first hours were, knowing we were ultimately in God’s control no matter the chaos was such a reassuring feeling.”

Love for neighbour

The theme of seeing the beauty of community and God’s faithfulness continues to be expressed by everyone impacted by the flood.

“It’s like we’re all one again,” Alison Arends explained as she described the environment in their workshop, which has been transformed into a food distribution center to support many of the families returning to face the discouraging realities of their destroyed homes and businesses. Every day since returning home, Alison operates the center for people to stop by and warm up, talk, receive a hug and food. Donations of food, meals and supplies arrive by the truckload. A local Tim Horton’s and another locally owned Greek restaurant provide weekly lunches so Alison can feed the 50-100 people who are working on cleanup in the area. Gateway Community Church and others have provided labour teams and ready-made meals. A company dropped off a portable outhouse. Others have brought clothing and gloves and toys for the kids who lost their own.

“So many people are helping, and giving free things. We are working together with the Sikh community, the Muslims and all of our Christian churches. Friends, neighbours, strangers. People have lost everything but now we are all helping each other. I believe everyone’s faith in humanity has been restored.”

Unlike the Tuins, the Bouwmans and the Arends, many families have not yet been able to return to their homes, which are still filled with several feet of toxic water. For most families in the prairie, flood insurance does not exist because they live at the bottom of a lake. Some farmers lost all their animals or mature crops like blueberries, which will take years to restore. Some may never be able to return. There will be months of hard work, restoration and despair ahead. The flood of 2021 is already being named as the largest and most expensive natural disaster in the history of our province.

However, I believe this disaster will be remembered for much more than the immense destruction and loss. In ways that only God can accomplish, he used this event to raise up a sense of community and love for neighbour that is more powerful than any flood waters. Owen and Levi Brandsma, two middle school students who reflected on their experiences in a captivating video story, shared Habakkuk 3 as a verse that we can all draw inspiration from: “Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to tread on the heights.”

  • Monica is a freelance writer and works as a Guidance Counselor at Abbotsford Christian School.

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