British Columbia

'You can't describe it … everything's gone': Merritt residents return home to catastrophic damage

Michelle and James Hintz are among hundreds reckoning with mud-covered floors and debris inside their flood-damaged homes in Merritt, B.C., as some residents are permitted to return following a city-wide evacuation last month.

366 homes still under evacuation order as community begins daunting cleanup effort

Michelle and James Hintz tour through what's left of their Merritt, B.C., home, pointing to water lines that show the flood waters came up around half a metre in their house. (Georgie Smyth/CBC)

Michelle and James Hintz trudge through mud-covered floors and debris inside what's left of their Merritt, B.C., house to assess the damage after flood waters inundated their home. 

"You can't describe it," Michelle said, choking back tears. 

"You see it in pictures. You see it on the news. You see it on TV and it's nothing until you can walk in and feel it, and know that everything you've worked hard to accumulate is gone."

Michelle and James were among the 7,000 Merritt residents ordered to evacuate last month after extreme rain caused the Coldwater River to breach its banks, overwhelming the city and its wastewater system. 

"I was passed out on the couch," Michelle remembered. "I hear ding-dong and then knock-knock.  … [James] comes flying out of here, gets to the door before I even get my eyes open, and it was the fire department, telling us the Coldwater River was breaching the banks, get out."

They grabbed what they could and within half an hour the couple left their home. 

Nearly three weeks later, the city rescinded all evacuation orders — while also implementing a new order for 366 properties that are worst affected — allowing some residents to return home, including the Hintzes.

"Everything's gone," Michelle said. "It's sitting in water for 18 days and now it's all full of mould. So anything that we could have saved, it's too late."

Michelle and James Hintz try to describe the state of their home and belongings. The couple returned to their property to find extensive damage from flood water. (Georgie Smyth/CBC)

Daunted by the cleanup and what's to come in the months ahead, James said, "there is no Christmas for us this year."

"How does anybody celebrate Christmas after something like this, when you don't have a place to celebrate it? You can't," he said. 

Bill Nash has also been permitted to return to his home. While his house escaped the worst of the flooding, his driveway and street were washed away, leaving behind a new river and making it difficult and dangerous to access his property. 

"I got to crawl down the rocks here, slipping and sliding, and through the water, which is at least not very high now — boots are good enough, you know? And then I got to jump up that bank there and get through all that crap on the ground there," Nash said.

"I'm used to working in the bush and I can go over logs faster than anybody. But the wife, she's got little legs. She's strong, but it's hard for her to just leap over ... It is a little tricky."

Bill Nash and his wife need to walk through a river that wiped out his driveway and street to access their home. (Georgie Smyth/CBC)

Nash's home also doesn't have working electricity or sewage. A portable outhouse sits where his street used to be and he has to make the journey across the river bank every time to get there. 

Brewery boils up safe water

The entire city is still under a boil water advisory, as contamination from floodwaters remains a concern.

To help residents access safe water, Kyle Hall, owner of the Empty Keg Brew House, has re-purposed his large brewing kettles to boil water for the community. 

"It was kind of a light bulb moment for us," Hall said. 

"It was like, well, hang on a second, we've got 700-litre kettles sitting here, with 400-watt heaters in it. Let's make some boiled water and offer it free to the residents."

Kyle Hall, left, repurposed the 700-litre kettles in his brewery to boil water for the residents of Merritt, as the city remains under a boil water advisory. ( Georgie Smyth/CBC)

The brewery has been using social media to spread the word and Hall says the response has been huge.

He says anything they can do to lighten the load for those devastated by the flooding is worth doing.  

"We're just a very small cog in the wheel. There's so many other things that are happening in the city that are important. But if we can do a little bit, we'll do it," he said. 

Joey Green, right, and his daughter Montana Green pictured after returning to their home in Merritt on Nov. 23. The city rescinded all evacuation orders on Friday, allowing some residents to return home — but implemented a new evacuation order for 366 properties that are worst affected. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The Hintzes say what Merritt residents really need is more housing, as rental properties are already full — not only with those affected by the flooding, but also by people displaced since summer due to wildfires, including the one that destroyed Lytton. 

"We need somewhere to go," Michelle said. 

"There's lots of support for food and clothing and all that kind of stuff. That's incredible. But it's just, no one has anywhere to live."

On Monday, during a public news briefing, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said $8.6 million in funding support has been dispersed to evacuees through the Red Cross so far. The provincial and federal governments are matching each dollar donated for the cause.

Flood evacuee support will shift from being managed by municipal governments to being run by the charitable organization on Dec. 15.

The minister said he plans to tour Merritt, B.C., Tuesday.

With files from Katie Nicholson, Georgie Smyth and Bridgette Watson

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