ABBOTSFORD – Unexpected. Unprecedented. Catastrophic.
These are a few of the words officials have used to describe the rains and flooding that hit southern BC in November. The intensity of the weather system that dumped more than 100 mm of rain on Abbotsford on November 14 set a new record, and saw the province rank the storm as the worst in a century.
But for brothers Karl and Rudi Meier, who with their families run U&D Meier Dairy Ltd. just off Hwy1 on South Parallel Road, the dangers are well known.
Their properties sit on the bed of Sumas Lake, drained in the 1920s to provide additional farmland, and the Meiers know flooding is possible during periods of heavy rain. Just 12 years after their parents bought the property, the 1983 flood showed them what was possible. When meteorologists forecast a powerful atmospheric river to hit November 13, they paid attention.
But nothing prepared them for what followed.
When water levels began rising November 15, Karl and his wife Chelsea along with Rudi and his wife Becky began making phone calls to move 38 calves from hutches to higher ground. They also took care of personal belongings, removing them from the basement to the upper levels of their houses, which sit adjacent to one another.
Monday night, two cows calved in standing water. The Meiers quickly made a pen in the hay loft and bedded it with straw to keep the newborns safe and dry; at that point, the water levels seemed manageable.
“When we did our third milking on Monday night, we thought we’d be fine,” says Chelsea. “We put extra sump pumps in to divert the water and pump it away from the barn and holding area for the cows. We thought, even if the water rose three more feet, we would be fine.”
But the situation quickly deteriorated.
“My husband and I woke up at 3:30 am on Tuesday morning because we heard weird noises. I went down to our basement and it was completely flooded,” says Chelsea. “I looked out my closet window and saw there was water up to the barn and milking parlour windows. From one room in my house, I could see a section of cows and they were standing in four feet of water.”
The family leapt into action. Chelsea needed to wake her six young children and move everything to the second floor of their home. Rudi, Becky and three of their children also needed to get to higher ground. Chelsea called 911 at 4:30 am to request an emergency evacuation, but no one came. The fast-moving waters had caught everyone by surprise.
Good Samaritan rescue
Shortly after 10 am, community members in fishing and jet boats arrived to rescue the 13 family members, two employees, six cats and a dog. Just before heading out, the Meiers threw hay down for the cows, knowing it would float, in hopes that the cattle would have enough feed until they were able to return.
Over the course of several trips, the Meiers were delivered to the Whatcom Road overpass, where they had to walk to a parking lot beside an A&W. Then, search and rescue transported the family across Marshall Creek to dry land on the other side. They were heartbroken to leave their cattle behind – a milking herd of 250 plus 200 heifers and dry cows – but roads were washing out.
Fourteen hours after Chelsea’s initial call for help and nearly eight hours after the families had been successfully rescued by good Samaritans, Abbotsford Police and search and rescue called asking if they still needed help.
That night, the Sumas dyke began to break, letting water from the Nooksack River spill through to Sumas Prairie. During a hastily called press conference at 9 pm, Abbotsford ordered all remaining residents to leave Sumas Prairie for fear the Barrowtown pump station would fail.
With all of the Meier family at friends’ and families’ homes in town, both Karl and Becky applied for permits to
re-enter their properties and care for the cows. Despite being registered with the province’s Premises ID program, which is supposed to facilitate access to farm properties during disasters, both were denied access from officials due to safety concerns.
“Even with how hard our milk board and BC Dairy is working … there is no easy way to get back to the farm,” Chelsea told Country Life in BC on November 21. “(We knew) the longer farmers had to stay off their properties, the worse the numbers were going to look for stock losses.”
Karl and Rudi were finally given permits to return to the farm on November 17. All their cattle were alive, and a vet confirmed they were in good health.
The dairy parlour at the home farm remained above water during the worst of the flooding, but there was no power or running water. A generator was set up and community members brought water to the farms. Power was restored later that night and the city turned the taps back on at a lower pressure the next day, though multiple line breaks meant other farms weren’t as fortunate.
By Sunday, a week after the record rainfall, the waters had receded and the Meiers’ properties were accessible by road. Neighbours and community members outside the evacuation zone have been providing hot meals as the family takes care of their livestock.
While other farms required air drops of feed, the Meiers managed to salvage some round bales and access their grain bins.
“There is a high fence at the back of the property that caught the bales that were floating,” says Chelsea. “We were able to get the augers working to get grain out.”
There’s no doubt the flood could have been a lot worse. While photos of water covering Sumas Prairie captured national attention, the region is just 90 square kilometres, or less than a quarter of the city’s total area. A far greater area was flooded when the Fraser River burst its banks during the freshet of 1948.
However, the area accounts for about half of the city’s farm cash receipts and the Meiers feel more could have been done to warn producers. A promised benefit of the Premises ID program is warning to producers of severe weather but the Meiers heard nothing. Public safety minister Mike Farnworth has repeatedly said the impact of the storm could not have been predicted.
But farmers note that the government had been warned by authorities in Washington of a northward flow of water that could result in catastrophic flooding, and delayed warning residents. The province’s emergency alert system was not used, something Abbotsford says it refrained from doing in favour of direct communication with affected property owners.
Nevertheless, neighbours looked out for each other, and for that the Meiers are grateful.
“As farmers, we always look out for each other. We are a tightknit community,” says Chelsea. “But as for being prepared for the future, I think that we will always be worried about the return of Sumas Lake.”