Preparing for the worst: Flooding during the COVID-19 epidemic

Flooding in 2017 and 2018 displaced thousands of British Columbians. Families in the Okanagan, Boundary and Kootenay regions saw their homes flooded, belongings washed away as they struggled to stay safe.

Fast forward to 2020. BC, like the rest of the world, is social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that may continue for months. Jennifer Houghton, a Grand Forks resident and documentary filmmaker who lived through floods in 2017 and 2018, told me that many residents are worried about what will happen if floods come this year – and have no confidence that the government has their back:

My next door neighbours got flooded badly in 2018 too.  They’re in their sixties and they are wondering how we’re going to deal with COVID19, social isolation, and a flood.  Essentially we are on our own.

COVID-19 is scary enough without adding a really bad flood season into the mix. It is difficult to think through all the challenges of deploying sandbags and flood control devices, let alone finding housing for thousands of evacuees, while also observing self-isolation. The provincial and local governments are fundamentally having to rethink how to prepare for floods if they come this year. 

If the floods come

If we’re lucky, BC won’t have to deal with floods during an epidemic. But climate change is bringing heavier spring and winter precipitation, faster snowpack melt and more flooding. Snowpack levels are elevated and many communities face a heightened flood risk this year. 

If we’re not so lucky, and floods arrive while we’re still dealing with the pandemic, Grand Forks and other communities will be fighting two emergencies at the same time – a complicated field known as compound disaster management. In Quebec the challenges of fighting COVID has led the province to take a step back from flood management, leaving communities largely on their own. 

Faced with imminent floods, residents are likely to turn to sandbags to keep back the rising waters, perhaps the most visible image that comes to mind of fighting floods. Sandbagging provides not just physical protection. As Roly Russell, an Area Director and the former Chair of the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB), highlighted to me, it also meets a deep psychological need to “come together and work hard to help battle this thing” and to build social cohesion.  

Sandbagging efforts in Grand Forks, 2018 (Photos: Jennifer Houghton)

Houghton was very concerned about what COVID-19 transmission would mean for sandbagging: 

If this whole mass of hundreds and hundreds of volunteers are together making sandbags … how are we all going to all help neighbours and friends make sandbags and stack sandbags? There’s a lot of elderly people who can’t do that themselves. It has to be a team effort. ... With COVID how are we going to manage that?

Houghton thought the army or firefighters, with appropriate training and safety gear, might be needed to help with sandbagging. She also liked the idea of sandbags and supplies being distributed well in advance. 

By contrast, Russell was confident that protocols can be developed to minimize the risk of transmission, and that other issues – such as evacuation and ensuring community mental health – were more challenging. 

Chris Marsh, Director of Emergency Management Planning for the RDKB, is worried about the threat of evacuations: “If we were to get to a large scale evacuation, it’s definitely going to be challenging for us.” 

In 2018 some 3,000 people were evacuated within the region, with some staying in hotels and motels but many with neighbours – sometimes with strangers who opened their doors. The Red Cross provided a financial contribution towards billeting costs. According to Marsh, only 50 ended up in some form of group lodging. 

This time around, it seems likely that COVID-19 concerns will keep a lot of people from opening their doors – although Russell pointed out that the risks of taking in one or two friends or family members without symptoms are probably manageable. Similarly, group lodging must be avoided if at all possible.

So Marsh and his team have spent a lot of time contacting hotels and motels to see what space might be available. They expect that more space will be available than during the 2018 floods, which coincided with summer travel season. There is also the possibility of sending evacuees with transportation to hotels in the Okanagan or West Kootenays if needed.

In addition, Marsh said, lessons from the 2018 floods may allow the regional district to be more “tactical” in who they order to evacuate, and when, allowing phased evacuations. Marsh is optimistic that there will be enough rooms to house evacuees, should that be needed. However, they are thinking about how transmission risks could be managed if group lodging becomes necessary.

Russell’s experience with evacuation registration in 2018 is something that needs to be avoided in 2020:

Myself and my family, we were evacuated in 2018. We had to go through the physical registration with Red Cross and it’s a lengthy process and everyone’s together in a huge building. That obviously is not an ideal strategy if we’re in pandemic response at the same time.

Fortunately, the Province is implementing systems that allow displaced people to register and get help on-line or over the phone. The Regional District is also looking at providing more services electronically. 

“It has got the potential to take longer, but we want to avoid having 100 or 200 people in a reception centre looking for support,” said Marsh. Emergency Support Services, according to the Province, will be designed to “limit the interactions between an evacuee and a volunteer to the bare minimum necessary and only while employing the practices of safe physical distancing.”

For Russell, an additional challenge of overlapping flood and COVID disasters is the mental health impact. Flooding is “a very complex, stressful time, and the mental health impacts post-disaster are enormous.” But COVID-19 isolation reduces the human contact that will be available and undermines “community cohesion” precisely at the time it is needed most. “I feel like if there are overlapping disasters, there will be a synergy there that is difficult to manage.”

Tracking the risk of floods

We don’t know yet whether the worst-case scenario of rising waters and evacuations will come this year, but the Province, the RDKB and Houghton are all keeping a watchful eye on snowpack levels. 

When I started wondering about the risks of floods during COVID-19, I found a video by Houghton explaining why she was worried about floods this year in Grand Forks. Since then the early-April snowpack levels from BC’s River Forecast Centre have eased off a bit for the Boundary region, but have risen in other parts of the Interior.  

The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) has activated its Emergency Operations Centre to prepare for potential floods. The BC government, in an emailed statement, told me that they were actively monitoring the situation because “the current snowpack levels are very high in the interior” meaning that warmer temperatures could lead to “flooding challenges in a number of areas.”

COVID-19 is already having an impact on how and where that tracking and emergency planning is being done in the Kootenay Boundary region. Marsh said:

Normally an Emergency Operations Centre is a big room full of people and you’ve probably seen pictures – everyone has their vests on and they’re doing a bunch of work. We’re running this one completely remotely. … [This] means a lot more communications, a lot more reaching out to our team members and elected officials to try to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

Marsh felt that this on-line EOC was working well so far, partly because Grand Forks had recent experience in dealing with a disaster. He has heard reports that other communities have found it more challenging.

As Russell said, right now the risk of flooding is “an elevated risk, but not a high risk, but April is volatile in terms of snow pack, and it could go either way.”

Communicating with the public on risks and individual preparation

While planning for the freshet (spring flooding) has started, Houghton told me at the end of March that she and other Grand Fork residents were in the dark about what was being done and what they need to do to prepare. Shortly after this, and after I reached out to the RDKB, the Emergency Operations Centre posted its first update that explicitly informed residents about “special planning” to address “physical distancing guidelines.”

However, while the RDKB is reassuring residents that they are working on the problem, there are still few details available from regional authorities or the Province about what residents can expect and how COVID-19 changes how they should prepare for flooding this year. 

To a large extent this seems to be because COVID-19 is an evolving crisis and the thinking is still being done. The RDKB officials I spoke with seemed to be genuinely and carefully thinking through how COVID-19 would change what they needed to do in the event of a flood – but they were quite upfront that they were still working through the details. Similarly, a statement from the Province informs me that they have, among other things, “initiated a review of process and guidelines to ensure compliance [with Public Health Officer] orders,” but that review seems to be in the early stages.

Residents of Grand Forks and other flood-prone communities likely want to know in the short-term whether COVID-19 changes what they should be doing to prepare for a flood. A lack of very clear direction on that point may discourage some from taking action at all. 

Provincial websites have a lot of advice from previous years on how to get ready for (and survive) a flood. But how does the current pandemic change this advice? Getting updated advice and information out to the public is going to take time. Just a few questions include:

  • Should your “grab and go bag” include wipes, masks or other equipment to protect against COVID-19 transmission? 
  • Is the emergency meeting place you’ve identified in your emergency plan still an appropriate location, and what are the criteria for deciding?
  • Should your emergency plan still rely upon immediate neighbours for emergency housing or should you discuss evacuation options with close friends or family outside the region? 
  • For people unable to do the Province’s suggested home renovations without help, do the risks of COVID-19 transmission outweigh the benefits of reaching out to others for support? 

Everyone I spoke to in Grand Forks emphasized the importance of local residents making their own efforts to prepare for flooding. But that means that it’s crucial to start telling people what to do to prepare in the near future. Fortunately, the EOC recognizes that. 

Marsh said the EOC will be ramping up communications in the days and weeks to come – focusing on ways residents can protect themselves and their property, and reaching people without online access through other platforms like radio. 

Houghton, however, would like to see more two-way communication with residents:

[The government] should be calling the people who went through the flood and be saying, hey, what do you want us to be doing? What can we do? The communication has been terrible. … They don’t ask us for feedback or input. 

The provincial government did not provide a specific answer to my questions about whether they would update their public materials on flood preparation in the coming weeks. 


Planning and preparing for the floods

As I write this, both the Province and the RDKB are looking at how their emergency plans can be modified for COVID-19. The RDKB has a detailed flood management plan that was developed in consultation with experts after the 2018 floods and it is guiding their response to this year’s potential floods. 

Houghton believes – and we agree - that the Province should be taking the lead – ensuring that local governments are prepared:

[T]he Province should be proactive here, and it should be coming to the city and the local government and saying here’s what we need to do, here’s the resources we have available, here’s how we can help and how we can’t help.

According to Chris Marsh, the RDKB is in regular communication with the Province, which has been very collaborative:

The Province has done a really good job so far. We had already started our freshet planning and they came to us and asked for a discussion, on the exact same topic. … Obviously, they are thinking about the multiple hazards that will be coming for the province as well.  

From the perspective of the RDKB, which has recent experience in working with floods, this seems to work. It is less clear what help the Province is offering local governments that have less experience with floods. 

If flood projections show that Grand Forks or other regions face an imminent risk of flooding, then flood prevention measures will need to kick in. The region will need anti-flood equipment, and possibly personal protective equipment for those deploying it. For example, when faced with a major weather event, Marsh says communities rely on the Province for the equipment and supplies they need to build emergency berms, dams and flood barriers: 

We don’t actually have those materials. The Province of BC maintains a stockpile ... So we’ve been in constant communications with them around when can we expect those materials, when is it important to ask for them and things like that.

In a written email, Emergency Management BC indicated that it is currently engaged in “pre-positioning of flood control assets in communities that may need them.” This follows the example of several mid-west U.S. communities which have been collecting safety and anti-flood equipment well in advance. However, it sounds as if Grand Forks, at any rate, has not yet received such “assets.”


Resilience of communities and river systems

The compound disasters of flooding and COVID-19 really emphasizes the importance of building resilient, flood resistant communities, so that we can rely upon them to keep us safe when other disasters (such as a pandemic) strike. If there was more that could have been done to prepare Grand Forks for flooding, it should have been done before we had to deal with a pandemic. 

A lot has been written about what COVID-19 teaches us about climate change. But one often ignored lesson is that crises like COVID-19 are a BIG reason for governments and individual landowners to work (when we don’t have an epidemic) to climate-proof our communities and properties (climate adaptation) as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Climate change is expected to make floods like the 2018 Grand Forks floods more frequent and worse, which in turn could make COVID-19 much worse. Spending money to prepare for climate impacts is much more cost-effective than paying for disaster relief and rebuilding – especially when working around a pandemic is likely to increase those costs. 

How and how quickly climate adaptation can be done will sometimes be controversial. The RDKB received funding after the 2018 floods to protect the region from future flooding, but that work is still underway. 

Houghton blasted the RDKB for (in her view) ignoring “the simple tasks of rebuilding basic dikes and berms” in favour of major changes to infrastructure, while Russell cautioned against this type of superficial, but “visible, active attempt to push the river back” without careful planning and engineering.

Houghton and Russell also both believe that upstream clearcut logging made the 2018 floods worse. In the aftermath of the flooding, Houghton helped found the Boundary Forest Watershed Stewardship Society to advocate for forestry practices that will protect, rather than harm, communities like Grand Forks. Keeping our communities safe from disasters raises fundamental questions about whether we can log in ways that better prioritize water systems and slope stability. 

The provincial and federal governments are planning to spend a lot of taxpayer dollars to stimulate the economy when we are allowed to leave our houses again. Climate adaptation to help prepare our communities for expected future disasters should be a priority. 

Lessons for those preparing for floods

Grand Forks learned lessons in 2018 that they are now applying to potential future floods. 

Not everyone learned the same lessons, of course. Houghton remains deeply suspicious of the ability of government to anticipate and prevent disasters. 

“Governments are not prepared. Governments are reactionary. They react to aftermath. They don’t get prepared for these things,” she says. So she emphasizes the importance of her community coming together to look after themselves – despite the COVID-19 epidemic. 

Russell and Marsh are more positive about the Regional District’s performance in 2018 and optimistic about their ability to handle similar disasters in 2020. What they went through in 2018 has given them plans and structures that they hope will guide them through flooding during an epidemic, should that occur. 

It does seem clear that the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary is thinking seriously about what it needs to do to keep people safe if there is a flood during the COVID-19 epidemic. As discussed above, the challenges are real and very scary, but not unmanageable if we start preparing now. 

What seems to be missing, from the Regional District but even more so from the Province, is communication about their plans. Residents of areas at risk from flooding are already thinking about what the pandemic might mean if they need to evacuate and they need to hear clear signals from governments that they have their backs. 

Even more importantly, the BC government needs to prioritize getting answers to questions about how individuals can prepare. If the current advice on flood preparedness is not changed by COVID-19 – the government needs to say that clearly. If the advice has changed, residents need to know how. 

It was a privilege to speak with Houghton, Russell and Marsh about how they would like to see Grand Forks prepare for potential floods this year. I’d also like to thank Emergency Management BC for getting me a prepared statement for this post. 

To everyone in flood prone areas, and in all of BC, stay well and stay safe. 


Photos courtesy of Jennifer Houghton

Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer