British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. government defends disaster response, says emergencies like flooding and mudslides start at 'local level'

Six times at press conferences on Monday, as the scope of the greatest flooding disaster B.C. has experienced in several decades became clear, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was asked if the government could have been more prepared, or done more to warn people. Six times, Farnworth pointed responsibility elsewhere.

But what happens when local weather events quickly become emergencies in huge areas of the province?

A road is submerged during flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Six times at press conferences on Monday, as the scope of the greatest flooding disaster B.C. has experienced in several decades became clear, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was asked if the government could have been more prepared, or done more to warn people. 

Six times, Farnworth pointed responsibility elsewhere.

"Travel advisories had been issued by the appropriate ministries," he said at one point.

To the question of why a border community in the United States issued a warning and started sandbagging properties well before communities in B.C., he said: "At the local level, they're observing the conditions in the local area … every community is required to have a local emergency plan and deal with local emergency events."

Asked why the province didn't use the B.C. Alert system, which has sent multiple test messages to British Columbians' phones this year, Farnworth answered: "It is one tool. It is not a silver bullet."

As for the hundreds of people stuck between two landslides overnight on a minor highway in the Fraser Valley? 

"The decisions on when to close a highway are made at the local level," said Farnworth, emphasizing once again that it is up to local governments to act when an emergency begins.

"That's the right way and the appropriate way to deal with these kinds of situations, because the experts in that local area know where the problem spots are."

WATCH | Mike Farnworth fields reporters' questions about the province's emergency response:

B.C. minister defends response to travellers stuck in mudslides

2 years ago
Duration 1:47
British Columbia's Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth was pressed by reporters to explain the provincial response to residents currently stranded by mudslides near the small community of Agassiz, B.C., in the southern part of the province.

Much like the heat dome that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people this summer, the immediate actions of the government will no doubt be scrutinized in the months ahead.

But here's what we can say for certain about the accuracy of Farnworth's comments.

Slow communication

On whether appropriate travel advisories were issued, Environment Canada issued a warning on Friday that another "atmospheric river" would likely bring heavy rain and snowfall to much of B.C. 

It was after 1 p.m. on Sunday when the province's transportation and emergency social media accounts began ratcheting up their warnings, with Emergency Info B.C. issuing a flood watch for the entire Fraser Valley, and DriveBC writing that "conditions are dynamic and crews responding as safely and as quickly as possible, please avoid any unnecessary travel."

However, in a province where weather warnings are common, some wondered if bigger alarm bells could have started earlier in the day.

"It was as easy a call to make as the record heat dome," said Weather Network digital meteorologist Tyler Hamilton, who wrote early Sunday: "I don't see how we escape a major flood event.

"The models locked the atmospheric river in place like a funnel, with no lateral motion."

At the same time, multiple media organizations tried getting in touch with the government throughout the day on Sunday, with no reply. Emergency Info B.C. provided no information for six hours. 

And while Farnworth was correct that jurisdiction over whether to close the Agassiz-Rosedale Highway — where hundreds were stranded — was the responsibility of the District of Kent, the parts of highways that don't go through municipalities are under provincial control.   

Residents watch a flooded street in Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Flood updates required? 

But as Farnworth put it in his Monday morning press conference, responsibility for emergencies initially falls to municipalities, until they ask for more help. 

"Other communities may require provincial assistance, they will ask for that … all of those things are working together and co-ordinated."

In the weeks and months ahead, however, it will be the province rebuilding the parts of the Coquihalla and Highway 1 wiped out by mudslides. And the towns of Merritt and Princeton will wonder if new and more comprehensive flood prevention strategies will be necessary.

"It's something that people have just never dealt with before. It's like [how] the fire season measures were put in place after it happened," said Jake Courtepatte, editor of the Merritt Herald. 

"I think the same thing is going to happen here."

More communities will no doubt revisit their flood mitigation plans to prepare for disasters. 

But after the last six months, many communities are undoubtedly wondering how often local weather situations will turn into provincial climate emergencies. 

Farmers carry livestock out of a flooded barn in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)