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Remembering the flood that nearly swallowed the Fraser Valley, 70 years later

It's been 70 years since a catastrophic flood hit B.C.'s Fraser Valley. A third of the valley was underwater, thousands of homes were destroyed and the area was left with millions in damages.

More than 22,000 hectares of farmland disappeared in the flood of '48

Thousands of homes in B.C.'s Fraser Valley were flooded when the Fraser River overflowed in spring 1948. Evacuees returned home to houses covered in sludge, or homes that had been destroyed altogether. (VPL Archives)

Allan Toop had just celebrated his high school graduation when his hometown nearly sank in 1948.

The Fraser Valley was hit with a catastrophic flood that spring, a disaster that left a third of the region overwhelmed by dirty water.

More than 16,000 people were forced from their homes, many of which were destroyed. More than 22,000 hectares flooded.

The Toop family — three back then — had about 100 cows between them. Allan remembers shepherding them to higher ground after the nearby dike broke.

They milked the cows by hand for two weeks before they could go home. Toop, now 87, thought it was an adventure then. 

The Toop family after milking their cattle by hand on high ground near their farms in Chilliwack during the flood of 1948. Allan Toop (front row, second from left), was 17 at the time. (Allan Toop)

 Looking back, he sees the disaster for what it was.

"There was water right up to the eaves in many of the houses," he said.

"It was on the murky side, to say the least. I don't want to see it again, I can tell you that."

Farm lands became a sea during the flood. The Agassiz cemetery, railroad rails and tracks were also washed out. (VPL Archives)

This spring marks 70 years since that flood.

In late May of 1948, an enormous snowpack coupled with an unusually warm, late spring sent disastrous amounts of snow melt into the valley. It wasn't long before the Fraser River overflowed.

Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Mission were the hardest hit. Rich farmland disappeared beneath a sea of filthy, brown water. Hundreds of houses were swallowed up.

CBC archive footage shows just how devastating the damage was in the Fraser Valley. 2:32

The Canadian National Railway line and the Trans-Canada Highway rail lines were flooded, cutting southwestern B.C. off from the rest of Canada.

Canadian Armed Forces were dispatched to help fix overwhelmed dikes and lay more sandbags. The Red Cross was called to provide fresh food and clean clothes to sodden evacuees.

When the waters receded two weeks later, people returned home to black sludge coating their walls. Damages came to about $20 million — around $215 million by today's standards.

It would take years for the agricultural region to recover.

Red Cross relief workers land at a home in the Fraser Valley in 1948. (Vancouver Public Library Archives)

Historian Jane Watt interviewed more than 100 people for a book about the disaster, High Water. Many lived through the flood or had family who did.

She said the flood changed the way the region saw the Fraser River. Towns invested more in flood prevention work to prevent another catastrophe.

"People took the river for granted then," Watt said. "Then people start to respect it again."

Watt said nearly all of her interviewees — like Toop — remember hometown resilience before anything else.

Historians say the Fraser Valley changed the way it prepared for flooding season after the disaster in 1948. It took weeks for the community to recover after 22,000 hectares were submerged. (CBC Archives)

"As much devastation as there was, what people really carry with them nowadays was that kindness and that community gathering," she said. "Across the board."

Toop still lives in the same area of Chilliwack today. His son and grandson have taken over the family farm.

The valley is preparing for another bad flooding season, with the Fraser River already under a high streamflow advisory.

Allan said his family won't move, even if hell and high water return.

"Oh good God, no," he said. "We're not going anywhere."

About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk

@rhiannaschmunk

Rhianna Schmunk is a reporter for CBC News based in Vancouver. Reach her at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca or @rhiannaschmunk.