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B.C. unveils $39M for climate emergencies, new flood plan

Emergency responders are pictured driving a truck through flooded streets in residential part of Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Emergency responders are pictured driving a truck through flooded streets in residential part of Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

British Columbia's emergency management minister has announced $39 million in new funding for more than 50 new projects responding to more frequent climate-related emergencies across the province.

On Thursday, the province also unveiled a new plan to prevent, respond to, and help communities recover from flooding disasters.

The need for a new plan arose after the atmospheric river in November 2021 that caused catastrophic flooding, deadly landslides and the destruction of key highways across B.C., said Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma.

Bowinn Ma, B.C.'s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, speaks at a press conference on Thursday.
Bowinn Ma, B.C.'s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, speaks at a press conference on Thursday.

Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma announced the funding at a news conference on Thursday. (CBC)

"2021 was a turning point when we realized the climate crisis hit home in a truly resounding way," Ma said at a news conference on Thursday. "The atmospheric river of 2021 is seared into the memories of British Columbians.

"In the face of climate change, our government is putting a stronger emphasis on preparing for and mitigating disasters, while ensuring we are responding to active emergencies and recovery for communities and people affected."

The 2021 disaster cost governments billions and insurance companies at least $675 million, and also sparked repeated criticism of recovery supports and delays from both Victoria and Ottawa.

With climate change, the price tag for such emergencies is expected to climb, with one study estimating floods, storms and droughts could cost the Canadian economy nearly $140 billion over three decades.

In response, Ma said the province would fund more than 50 new projects in municipalities and First Nations across B.C. to help prepare for climate emergencies and become more resilient, in addition to more than $200 million the province already spent on nearly 2,000 such projects under its community emergency preparedness fund.

The new projects include a wide range of "resilience" measures for multiple types of climate-related disasters, including:

  • strengthening river banks prone to erosion in Langley;

  • fixing and upgrading flood-prevention dikes in Richmond and Surrey;

  • reinforcing drainage-pump systems in Surrey;

  • mapping Langley's floodplain;

  • rehabilitating a watershed in the Kootenay Boundary region;

  • new cooling, warming and clean-air centres in Vancouver.

"If weather events of the last few years have taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst," Ma said.

As part of the efforts, the new B.C. flood plan also unveiled on Thursday contained four key pillars, explained Minister of Land, Water, and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen.

Those are mapping and risk assessment for flood plains; improving response and recovery; reducing risks to communities; and strengthening how various levels of government co-ordinate and communicate.

Homes and farm land in the community of Sumas Prairie is pictured underwater during flooding in Abbotsford, British Columbia on November 16, 2021.
Homes and farm land in the community of Sumas Prairie is pictured underwater during flooding in Abbotsford, British Columbia on November 16, 2021.

Homes and farmland in Abbotsford's Sumas Prairie were inundated by flooding in November 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Like droughts, now [with] the risk of climate change, we expect that floods will be much larger and have much more regional impacts," Cullen noted. "They say the best time to plant a tree is yesterday, the next best time is today," said Cullen.

He said the impacts of climate change on communities, particularly on flooding, happened in B.C. "much, much faster" than predicted.

One challenge, he said, was that "successive governments" in B.C. found the cost of fully preparing for such catastrophes would be "prohibitive."

In 2022, the province estimated the price tag for fixing and upgrading dikes alone could top $9 billion.

So, Cullen said it was important to sit down with First Nations and municipalities to strategize how to achieve a more effective plan.

Flood waters cover a neighbourhood on Nov. 16, 2021, after severe rain prompted the evacuation of Merritt, B.C., a city of 7,000 east of Vancouver.
Flood waters cover a neighbourhood on Nov. 16, 2021, after severe rain prompted the evacuation of Merritt, B.C., a city of 7,000 east of Vancouver.

Flood waters cover a neighbourhood of Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 16, 2021, after severe rain prompted the evacuation of the city. (Artur Gajda/Reuters)

"This is incredibly stressful on communities," he said. "We can reduce the risk of flooding and keep people safe."

Stó:lō Nation Tribal Chief Tyrone McNeil thanked the province for listening to First Nations in developing its new plan, and said that in his 25 years of leadership, he finally feels heard on issues of disaster response and preparation.

"This is the very first time we've actually sat next to officials and shared the pen, passed the pen back and forth, until we reached common ground," he said. "I feel really good about that."