British Columbia

'Somebody needs to be accountable': Sumas Prairie farmers angry over lack of flood warnings

Dairy farmer Chelsea Meier is angry that residents and farmers on the Sumas Prairie were given little or no official warning to get out as water overtook properties, eventually drowning farm animals and cutting off roads, leaving many people stranded.

Critics point to better warning system, forecasting south of the border

Chelsea Meier at her farm, U&D Meier Dairy in the Sumas Prairie of Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 29. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Almost three weeks ago, icy chocolate-brown waves of floodwater overtook the U&D Meier Dairy farm on the Sumas Prairie with insidious speed, filling their basement, barns and fields as they slept.

When the twin Meier brothers who run the Abbotsford, B.C., farm bedded down on the night of Nov. 15 they were hopeful, as the flooding that had begun the previous day appeared to be receding.

But around 4 a.m. they were woken up by a banging. A steel drum had floated into their house entranceway and was knocking against a railing.

When Karl Meier tried to check his basement he was stopped by water. 

"I was terrified. All of our memories were down there," said Chelsea Meier, Karl's wife and co-farmer, and a mother of six children aged six to 17. Karl's brother Rudi lives across the driveway and that day was with three more children and two migrant workers.

The flooded Meier family farm in the community of Sumas Prairie on Nov. 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"I was worried about our cows and getting my kids off the property," said Chelsea Meier.

She's angry that residents and farmers on the Sumas Prairie were given little or no official warning to get out as water overtook properties, eventually drowning farm animals and cutting off roads, leaving many people stranded.

"It's just not fair that none of us on the Sumas Flats were given notice — somebody needs to be accountable," she said. 

Across the border in Sumas, Wash., a siren sounded, notifying residents to evacuate their homes.

The City of Abbotsford opted not to issue an alert, knocking on doors instead.

"We got no warning," says Meier, 37, whose 100-acre farm is registered with a federally run premises identification system that she said was supposed to give agricultural properties warning of disasters like floods. 

As the sun rose, Meier flew her drone over her property, capturing surreal scenes of pumpkins and hay bales floating down the road. As the waters continued to rise, they eventually shifted the 1,000-kilogram antique snooker table in the family's basement.

She said the family called 911 and were told rescue would come, and to seek higher ground.

But she says they didn't get a call back from emergency services until around 14 hours later — and by then they'd escaped in a friend's boat.

"No rescue came for us. No police officers, just our friends … they put their fishing boats in the water and came and got us," said Meier.

"It was the worst thing ever leaving your house in a boat. We don't live on a lake. We live on ground, on solid ground."

A dairy cow is pictured alongside a high water line at the U&D Meier Dairy farm on Nov. 29. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At a nearby hay and flower farm, Cindy Dueck also woke up Nov. 16 surrounded by water.

She says she ended up being towed to safety in an SUV by a neighbour with a tractor — but not before saving her chickens by floating them from their coop to her dry porch using an old Amazon box.

"Nobody knocked on our door. Nobody phoned us. Nobody sent us a message saying you need to evacuate. Nothing," said Dueck.

'People are trusting us'

During a news briefing on Nov. 17, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun explained that officials opted not to use an alert system, so as not to panic people. He said city officials were "very much aware of everything that's going on from one corner of the prairie to the other."

"I think people are trusting us, that we actually know what we are doing," he said.

As for the premises identification system, CBC News has contacted the province to clarify whether it helped officials respond to the flooding, but has yet to receive a reply.

Critics have also pointed to low staffing at B.C.'s River Forecast Centre as another reason why people were caught off guard by the scale of the floods. 

Flood forecasting was more accurate south of the border, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which said staffing has remained at the same level at the B.C. centre for more than a decade — and way below levels in similar organizations in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Alberta.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth defended the River Forecast Centre on Wednesday, saying it does "an amazing job," but added that the government would review its response.

Dairy cows at the Meier farm on Nov. 29. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The cleanup

In the days that followed, the Meier family were able to return to their farm to get young livestock off the property and tend to their 240 cows, who were at risk of drowning or starvation and needed to be milked. despite the fact their property remained under evacuation order.

"This is not just a pay cheque for us. We love our animals. This is our livelihood. My husband, my brother-in-law and 16-year-old son risked their lives to come back to make sure our animals were safe," said Meier.

The family and their friends are now hard at work mopping up the potentially toxic water, which has left a metre-high watermark on the calf pens. They know they are lucky.

"Just so much devastation ... We still have friends that are underwater. They've lost their house, they've lost animals, they've lost everything," said Meier.

Cows at the U&D Meier Dairy farm on Nov. 29. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Braun estimated it will take a billion dollars to fix all the damage and upgrade the dikes that protect the Sumas Prairie, the eastern two-thirds of which used to be a lake fed by the Nooksack River in Washington state. 

On Thursday, B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said more than 640,000 animals died in the floods.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca

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