One year ago on Jan. 31, 2020, a torrential rainstorm hit the Cowichan Valley. It didn’t let up all day and by the early morning hours of Feb. 1, the Chemainus River spilled over its banks and caused massive flooding in the Halalt First Nation lands, Westholme, along Chemainus Road, on a section of the Trans Canada Highway that caused its closure for a few hours, engulfed Russell Farm Market & Garden Centre and affected houses on the lower end of Mount Sicker Road.
The water level rose so quickly in the overnight hours several residents had to evacuate their homes at a moment’s notice. Crofton and Chemainus Fire Department members sprung into action to assist as the situation reached the critical stage.
It seemed like a scene out of a bad disaster movie, as basements flooded rapidly and water surrounded properties.
Fortunately, the rain finally left up and flood waters receded in the late morning, but the damage had already been done and numerous people were displaced. A bright sunny day that followed alleviated any further threat, but the magnitude of the flooding only became immediately apparent to most in the morning light.
The Halalt First Nation was particularly hard hit and the Westholme properties neighbouring the reserve.
Many went to emergency centres or stayed with friends and relatives for a long period of time. Some of the homes are still being repaired one year later.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller visited the area in March before COVID to assess the area and promised all the resources possible to deal with flood relief.
Prevention was a key part of discussions between Miller and Halalt Chief James Thomas.
“We were able to see a good number of the homes that were impacted,” said Miller at the time. “It’s a significant part of this community. They’re pretty resilient, but there’s a lot of work to be done.
“A little bit of water can do a lot of damage. In this case, a lot of water did a lot of damage.”
“The disaster relief fund assistance is a huge relief for us,” said Thomas at the time. “That assisted us with housing people.”
Recovery was slow. Initially, all 41 families on the reserve were flooded out of their homes “due to the septic fields all failed because we couldn’t turn the water on,” pointed out Thomas.
Fourteen homes had flooded basements, forcing those occupants to make temporary arrangements to stay in a hotel.
Russell Farm Market & Garden Centre had extensive damage that required the business to close for several months.
Employee Jacqueline McQuinn remembers the moment she heard about the flooding as if it was yesterday.
“In the morning, my daughter phoned and said ‘have you been on Facebook yet?’” she recalled. “And then I checked my phone and, oh, my God.
“I’d seen the pictures of it and the live video someone did over the bridge and how high the water was.”
After the water receded, McQuinn met with owner France Bournazel and other employees.
“It was an overwhelming feeling, where do you start to get this back running?” she pondered.
The business immediately began the long process of repair. The Garden Centre opened again in March to keep some employees working and bring in some revenue. The market didn’t resume operations until Sept. 8.
McQuinn is kind of a Jacqueline of all trades, having done work in the office, the nursery – whatever it took – to fill the gap.
“There was lots of work to be done in the office doing the inventory and the loss,” she said. “Huge decisions to be made.”
COVID naturally hit after the flooding and added another complicated layer to getting back up and running again.
Scot Bruce just moved into his place at 8336 Chemainus Rd. on Nov. 11, 2019 and had done a lot of work on the interior prior to that. Little did he know three months later, he’d been in for a rude awakening.
“I was just playing my guitar and the flood came in,” he said. “It came about two inches into my house.
“The firefighters came and asked me if I wanted to go.”
Bruce decided to stick it out, even after firefighters issued their ‘last call’ to help him evacuate.
“I’m staying here,” Bruce insisted. “If it gets really bad, I’ll be on the top of my roof. Come and get me.”
It didn’t get to that point but Bruce faced a massive clean-up afterwards and is still getting around to installing new flooring and making other improvements.
Bruce was grateful to Mark Wall from the Victoria office for disaster fund relief. “He was very accommodating for me when he came out to assess the damage,” he said.
The story was the same at many other places in the vicinity, extensive damage and a long road back to recovery.
Another heavy rainfall a few weeks ago in early January 2021 brought up more of the same concerns. Bruce said the water level was only about six inches lower than the last time.
With little work done on the Chemainus River to clear logjams and remove sandbars, many are fearful a repeat of that fateful night in 2020 is imminent.