Now two years since the atmospheric river flood caused the evacuation of the entire City of Merritt, the recovery process continues at a crawl while awaiting more of a federal response.
Mayor Mike Goetz spoke in May 2023 to the federal Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Committee about the trials and tribulations that Merritt residents are still facing, and called for more action from Ottawa.
“Today I speak to you from a community that, in 2021, experienced record heat domes, two wildfires at our gates and, last, major flooding from atmospheric rivers in the month of November,” said Goetz. “More than 400 properties were affected by flood water, and the entire town of 7,500 was evacuated at 3 a.m. due to the failure of our water and waste treatment systems. I have to say that the recovery of our community has been inspiring and steady, with roads, infrastructure and private residences being repaired back to livable conditions.”
Getz added that the problem lies, however, in the fact that Merritt’s flood mitigation infrastructure has had no substantial improvements since the disaster.
“Until that changes, the tension of our residents is palpable and, as of today, we are at a level one flood risk with rapidly melting snowcaps. We are testing temporary dikes and dikes that were built by the military almost two years ago.”
This exchange was months before the B.C. government announced $2 million in funding for a 200-metre dike along the Coldwater River near the destroyed Claybanks RV Park. However, many areas of land in Merritt where diking and flood mitigation projects are needed are still owned by displaced residents and contain unliveable homes, a problem that Goetz believes can be remedied through build back better funds (buyouts) from the federal government.
“These houses have to be taken care of in order for new diking to go ahead. We also have to relocate the river. We have a temporary dike protecting Pine Street, but eventually the river has to go back to its original flow, and these houses would then become unattainable—you couldn’t get to them.
“My recommendation is that the build back better program be refined to allow immediate payment to the province so that funds can be used to support improved projects during the recovery phase…land acquisition should be an eligible cost under the (disaster mitigation) fund to facilitate essential mitigation infrastructure.”
Report goes before House
This recommendation is just one brought forward by Goetz, Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne and Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola MP Dan Albas in a report titled ‘Building a More Climate Resilient Canada’, presented to the House of Commons in early November. Both Merritt and Princeton have experienced the significant effects of climate change in recent years, including wildfires and floods, and both mayors are calling for help to fight back.
“Small communities such as Princeton and Merritt are grappling with the need for tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades, due to the impact of the 2021 atmospheric river. It’s unreasonable to expect taxpayers in small communities to shoulder the burden alone,” said Mayor Coyne. “I urge Prime Minister Trudeau and his government to take immediate action. Do not sit idly by on the recommendations made by the Transport Committee, support the communities like ours in BC and across this country by fulfilling the promise to prioritize the well-being and resilience of communities like Princeton.”
Insurance for all
When the November 2021 atmospheric river hit Merritt’s Zones 3 and 4 the hardest, many residents were either vastly under-insured or without overland water insurance completely, leaving them in financial ruin. The 2023 federal budget has indicated the intent to establish a low-cost flood insurance program aimed at protecting households at high risk of flooding, something Goetz said he supports as long as it remains affordable and accessible.
“Merritt and other flood-affected communities cannot wait any longer for decisive action from the Trudeau Government,” said Goetz.
MP Albas echoed his sentiments.
“Our local mayors’ testimony highlights the needs of smaller, rural flood-stricken communities. It’s time for the Trudeau Government to stop talking and start delivering on their promises.”