It’s been more than 100 days since record-breaking floods ripped through southern British Columbia, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
The catastrophe killed five people and forced thousands of others to flee as water and mudslides swallowed homes, cars, community infrastructure and land that had belonged to some families for generations.
While many have returned home since the disaster, some members of the Shackan Indian Band remain under evacuation order, as the only access bridge to the south side of the community was washed away.
There are seven displaced households altogether, including Chief Arnie Lampreau’s. He said coming home brings mixed emotions for much of the community — in particular, residential school survivors.
“When they look at the devastation of the fire and the devastation of the river, that scenic part of their territory that we’ve grown up in is no longer the same,” he told Global News, overlooking Scw’ex, also known as Nicola Creek.
“After the 100 days, they’re feeling like it’s coming home from residential school. They’ve got that same trauma, still getting accustomed to being back home.”
The Shackan Indian Band near Merritt, B.C. is in one of the areas hardest-hit by the floods, which may be one of the most expensive natural disasters in Canadian history.
About 50 of its members living on-reserve were evacuated on Nov. 15, 2021 as the water ripped apart Highway 8, cutting off the path to Spences Bridge. Reconstruction allowed most of them to return two weeks ago, but the community is shaken.
“Weird, weird feeling — like I didn’t belong there,” said Lee Seymour, of returning to his bed for the first time in months.
“The community went through a shock and they seem to be different. We can laugh and everything like that, but something happened.”
Shackan Indian Band, like other First Nations in B.C., has faced back-to-back crises, having been evacuated over the summer due to wildfires that charred entire mountainsides.
That experience made leaving home all the more difficult, said member Susan Seymour.
“It’s scary cause you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to lose a loved one or not,” she said at a community gathering on Thursday.
Meals are being provided at the band hall to residents who have come back after the disaster, as many are still without running water and refrigerators.
Some, like Susan’s sister Joan Seymour, have delayed returning, taking the necessary time to process the grief and trauma of being wrenched away from home once more.
“I still haven’t come home yet, I’ve been doing a lot of cleanup in my house because a lot of stuff froze,” Joan explained.
“I had anxiety and I had some fear. I could have come home like everybody else at the same time but the families across the river, they haven’t been able to go home yet. It’s like we’re separated still.”
Even when she returns, Joan added, she will remain prepared to leave again.
Many cars, swing sets, appliances and homes on the reserve remain partially buried by the mud and silt left behind by the floodwaters. Toys, broken power poles and fenceposts litter the ground.
Residents are glad to be back, said Lampreau, but remain on high alert — keenly aware that disaster closely related to climate change threatens the land and water they love.
“Looking at the highway and looking at 23 washouts, the water has not changed colour yet,” he said.
“A lot of the fields that our grandparents and uncles and family have worked hard to establish have been washed away. It’s a hard thing to deal with, looking at the landscape and how it is.”
Meanwhile, Lampreau said the community will continue to gather for meals, not only due to the lack of water and refrigerators, but to share and support one another.
On Thursday, they laughed and chatted over coffee in a room whose walls are covered in happy memories — photos of band members, relatives, elders, pow-wows, Halloween and more.
The community is still working to rebuild, cleaning up the reserve, inspecting homes for safety, and pushing all levels of government to co-ordinate and improve their disaster response and relief efforts.
— with files from Neetu Garcha