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British Columbia is looking at how it can adapt to prepare for more climate disasters


To Canada now - last month, the Canadian province of British Columbia was swamped by record-breaking rainfall. Flooding and landslides disrupted major road and rail routes that connect Canada's largest port to the city of Vancouver. Homes and farms were submerged for days or even weeks. Emma Jacobs reports it from the Fraser Valley that British Columbia's natural disasters have increased calls to adapt the country's infrastructure to try to withstand the more extreme weather events expected in a warmer climate.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Gurshan Gill points a couple inches above the tops of his rain boots to show the height floodwaters had reached just across the street from his family's blueberry farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

GURSHAN GILL: The water would get up to, like, here at least.

JACOBS: Two weeks after the record-shattering atmospheric river - a current of warm, wet air from the tropics - the ground's still saturated. With more rain falling, neighbors and volunteers are helping to pack gravel in sandbags along a creek to keep it from flooding nearby buildings. The city had recently raised the bridge over the creek and dug it deeper, but new silt deposited by the water running down from the mountains was already visible near the surface.

GILL: We've expanded the creek. And the crazy thing is, this is how bad it is still.

JACOBS: A recent United Nations report found that climate impacts are getting worse faster than countries are adapting. This is visible across Canada, which is warming at a faster pace than other parts of the world. Tamsin Lyle, a flood management consultant based in Vancouver, surveyed flood damage by helicopter last month, including entire neighborhoods left under feet of standing water.

TAMSIN LYLE: You could really see how the water was moving across the floodplain, and it was because of the contaminants. So you could see the oil slicks and all of the debris.

JACOBS: Since the record-breaking storm in BC last month, record rainfall on Canada's East Coast also have severed highways. And melting permafrost in Canada's vast north has been damaging roads and buildings for years.

Here in the Fraser River Valley, farmers were drawn by the rich soil and even diverted a lake a century ago to create more farmland. There's a whole system of dikes, pumps and canals to control water in the region, which has always been prone to flooding. But the warming climate is fueling even more intense bouts of rain that overwhelm the protections in place last month.

TOM HOOGENDOORN: The cows that came here, they were just dead tired. They'd been belly deep in water probably for a day.

JACOBS: Tom Hoogendoorn has had 70 evacuated cows in his barns since a dike failed near his friend's farm.

HOOGENDOORN: There's still probably 2 meters, or about 6 1/2 feet of water in his barn still today, and his house.

JACOBS: Thousands of cows were evacuated from affected farms, but several hundred died, plus 12,000 pigs and more than half a million chickens. It will take a long time to calculate the financial cost, but it's likely in the billions of dollars. That includes flooded homes, barns and equipment, but also possibly cleanup of contaminated farmland and lost production. Weeks after the big storm, milk pickups are still disrupted by washed out roads.

HOOGENDOORN: Even today, we're not sure he's going to pick up.

JACOBS: A lot of farmers' losses will be covered by the federal and provincial governments, though not all. The province has also pledged to rebuild damaged roads to withstand more severe storms projected under climate change. Then there's the system of flood protections whose upkeep farmers have criticized for years. Hoogendoorn's farm borders the Fraser River. The water level has begun to recede, but he points to areas along the bank that he predicts could fail without reinforcement.

HOOGENDOORN: When the current's really running strong, it'll actually dole (ph) in the middle of the river. And you can hear it whistling. You can just - these logs go by like this - (vocalizing) - really fast.

JACOBS: His home and barns are elevated to what's supposed to be the 100-year flood level, but that doesn't mean he's not worried.

HOOGENDOORN: You can't always just expect things to be the way they are, especially not with our weather situations the way they are. Everything's changing. And that's the scary part is we can't plan for any of it.


JACOBS: Here in BC, the damaging storms could at least unlock the kind of money required to do the infrastructure work locals want to see. The visuals of crumpled highways and cows being herded on jet skis got Canadians' attention and got political leaders talking about increasing resiliency against more extreme weather.

ED FAST: We're going to have to come to grips with this as a nation, and it's going to cost a lot of money.

JACOBS: Ed Fast, a conservative member of Parliament for Abbotsford, said that the extent of flooding has made climate change less abstract for him and hopes it will for his colleagues, too.

FAST: Take it seriously enough to make the tough decisions that are going to be required to be made to make sure that we mitigate against these risks.

JACOBS: But new infrastructure can't meet this challenge alone, according to flood consultant Tamsin Lyle.

LYLE: With climate change, we're really - like, we're meeting the edge of what is technically feasible right now in terms of how high these dikes can go.

JACOBS: She thinks the province needs to look at different tools to reduce the speed and amount of water coming down from the mountains and also reconsider what gets built in the most vulnerable areas.

LYLE: To make sure that the things that we care about the most are not in the worst places in the floodplain - right? - the deepest water, the fastest water, the least warming time.

JACOBS: These are some of the most difficult conversations to have, she acknowledges, but, she argues, increasingly urgent ones.

For NPR news, I'm Emma Jacobs in Fraser Valley, British Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY SEGAL'S "MAGICIAN [DUB]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs
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