It has been one year since the first in a series of powerful atmospheric rivers pounded southwestern B.C., killing five people and triggering floods and mudslides that knocked out multiple critical highways.
The storm left the Lower Mainland essentially cut off from the rest of the province, with major damage to Highway 5, Highway 8, Highway 1 and blockages on Highway 99 and Highway 3.
Highway 8, the most seriously damaged of those routes, was only reopened last week. The temporary replacement for the highway that connects Merritt and Spences Bridge is relying heavily on the right of way from an old rail line.
“It’s great for our communities down river and the people of the (Thompson Nicola Regional District) to gain access to their houses and that, but really in essence this highway is still a construction road,” Shackan Indian Band Chief Arnie Lampreau said of the temporary highway.
“I had to remind (Transportation) Minister (Rob) Fleming yesterday that when Highway 5 goes down, this is not a main artery now to access Highway 1.”
The effects of the flooding and devastation still loom large for the Shackan community.
About 10 homes, including Lampreau’s, remain inaccessible after the bridge that connected them to the highway washed out in last November’s storm. He’s hoping a temporary, $7-million replacement can be up and running by next year, but said consultations about Highway 8 itself are ongoing with no timeline for full repair.
“Looking at the property and my house right now I feel like a stranger,” he said.
“In the last few months its been really tough. Every time I come down here and have a look at it, basically a piece of my heart has been broken.”
The temporary repairs to Highway 8 have cost about $100 million, more than a third of the $240 million the Ministry of Transportation says has gone into temporary infrastructure repairs so far.
“The scale of the damage was massive. Getting Highway 5 up and running within 35 days of course was a tremendous achievement and I think nobody expected that before Christmas of last year,” Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said.
“Highway 8 has been a difficult one because approximate seven kilometres of the entire highway, which was built on silt and paved over and extremely vulnerable to all that precipitation, just washed away into the river. It’s gone.”
According to the ministry, between $30 million to $40 million has been spent on temporary repairs to Highway 1 between Hope and Cache Creek, with a completion date of 2024.
Between $45 million and $55 million has been spent on repairs to Highway 5, with some permanent repair work expected to be done by this winter.
Fleming told Global News the cost of transforming temporary repairs into permanent highway upgrades will likely exceed $1 billion.
Part of that cost will ensure that the new permanent highways are adapted to climate change and the extreme weather anticipated to come with it.
“B.C. is in some ways writing the book on new engineering standards for climate adaptation for the 21st century,” Fleming said.
“When we talk about what climate resilient infrastructure looks like, it’s how do you manage massive atmospheric river precipitation events like that, it means significantly larger culverts, it means much larger bridge spans so water can get underneath it.”
Fleming said the province is counting on the federal government to cover about 70 per cent of those costs.
Meanwhile, parts of the City of Merritt remain unrecognizable a year after much of the community was covered in water. Some roads and one key bridge are still waiting for repairs.
“At the moment that depends on funding permits from the provincial government,” Merritt flood recovery manager Sean Strang said.
While a number of Merritt residents remain forced from their homes, the city’s biggest concern is ensuring it’s protected in the future.
A plan to improve dikes and buy out landowners to create a bigger flood channel is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
“We’re just not seeing funding for that, that it would progress in a really quick manner,” he said. “We’re probably in this for four to six years before we’re fully protected, if we can find some federal funding to do it.”
Strang said the temporary dikes installed last November will provide some protection, but likely wouldn’t stand up to an event of the same magnitude.