Month: November 2021

Yawn -Just Another Wake-up Call

If you would like to read a collection of stories about broken dykes and massive floods in BC, I recommend a gentle click on https://www.chilliwack.com/main/attachments/Files/1503/Fury%20-%20Flood%20Disaster%20Book%201948.pdf for outstanding reporting and dramatic photography of the Fraser Valley under attack by water.

When you open The Fury of the Flood, you will notice that the date on the cover is 1948, some 73 years ago, with most of the communities named either swamped or destroyed by this month’s brutal example of history repeating itself.

I was an unwilling witness to the 1948 catastrophe. I was stranded in a rural railway station with a trainload of fellow immigrants waiting for Canadian Pacific Railway to decide whether to transfer passengers to buses for the balance of our trans-Canada journey or continue on the rail track just slightly above flood water.

The sign on the station platform read: Hope. After close to two weeks of ocean and rail travel from Lancashire, “hope” was about all a young husband, a courageous wife and an 18-month-old son had left when told we may have reached the end of our rail journey. We were still a long way from our destination that we knew only as an Island somewhere beyond Vancouver.

On our stalled train, we were told that just ahead of us was the Fraser Valley with many lakes, streams and a raging river, all overflowing their banks and/or dykes. CPR engineers were checking the track to see if it was safe to use.

We waited and “hoped” and, as the young husband-father, I happily received the announcement that we would be proceeding down the Valley and into Vancouver soon. I can’t remember how long it took that day from Hope to Vancouver or if we were the last train through before the rail track became unsafe. I can remember looking across a vast expanse of water as we rolled very slowly west. I recall wondering if my ambition to find a better way of life for my young family had become a selfish search for adventure – and what would happen if the train stalled now.

In 2021, “an atmospheric river” has savaged British Colombia with even greater ferocity than the “storm surge” of 1948, and I think how fortunate we were 73 years ago. And I wonder why it is taking us so long to resolve a problem that’s been around since the first Fraser Valley dyke was built.

During our most recent flood, Global News reporter Jas Johal interviewed Michael Reeve, a refugee citizen of Merritt, the small community overwhelmed by the flood, unprepared for the speed and terror of the rising water. It was suggested that the flood was a “wake-up call.” Reeve’s reply: “We say it’s a wake-up call. How many times in the past have we said a big event is a wake-up call? And the next year, we forget about that wake-up call and announce another.”

A good answer and true.

The first recorded wake-up call in BC was in 1894 during the spring freshet – the mountain snowmelt. Through the centuries, there have been many accounts of floods; oral history passed along by native clans of the Fraser Valley. White developers have never had much time for oral history.

In 1935, we had a gauge record of flooding over the 20-foot level for 33 days and higher than 24 feet for 17 days. A simple search of the key words “flooding on the Fraser” informs us it is “a natural process during the spring freshet when the river carries vital nutrients to lower river eco-systems” and that “coastal floods are also natural processes and typically occur in winter during storm surge events.”

One last quote gleaned from the mass of readily accessible online wake-up calls: “The BC Lower Mainland was shaped by flooding over thousands of years from the Fraser Canyon and the Fraser Delta. Because floodplains have become extensively damaged over the past 200 years, the region now faces considerable risk from the Fraser River freshet and coastal flooding. A SINGLE MAJOR RIVER OR COASTAL FLOOD IN THE COMING DECADES COULD RESULT IN $20 TO $30 BILLION IN LOSSES.” (The emphasis is mine)

Will it take forever for those in land development and government planning roles to realize that flood plains are, well, plains that flood?

Consider the possibility that nature is getting a little impatient with our inability to read the wake-up calls it so clearly sends.

Addendum

That’s a polite way of addressing the inexcusable block of repeated words in my latest Blog offering on Canada’s triumphant soccer team. (“Hot Time on a cold night”) Sorry to bother you with such a sorry excuse – but these things do happen when writers fail to pay full attention to a final draft before punching “send.” And “thank you” to readers for being so gentle with their observations., Jim

A Modest Poppy “For Those Hemmed In With The Spears”

A couple of days late with my traditional tribute to my father, who survived one of the bloodiest battlefields of World War One and, like millions of others in that and subsequent wars, carried some grievous wounds to his grave. 

I never heard him complain about the loss of his left eye, the smashed shoulder blade or the upper left arm repaired and reassembled to give him the deceptive appearance of an able-bodied veteran. Like so many warriors, he rarely talked about his experience on W Beach at Gallipoli. In fact, I remember only one occasion listening to my father tell the story, with a snort of derisive laughter, of how he was part of a three-man machine gun crew. “I don’t think we got more than 50 feet up the beach before a shell burst took all three of us out,” he recalled.

He just remembered the flash and explosion and “the flies” as he and hundreds of others lay bleeding on the beach. They went in at dawn, and it was close to dark before they could get organized relief. “Thirst was a big thing, but the flies buzzing and walking where you’d been hit were the worst.”

It sounds funny now, but we didn’t have flies in my home when I was a child. Regardless, I remain as paranoid about their presence today as my father was after W Beach at Gallipoli. One blue bottle intruding in our living space then, or my living space now, is a call to arms until the intruder is silenced. Forever.

My world was well into WW2 when my father began to seriously teach me how to behave when nations started throwing high explosives around. I was part of a stretcher crew when I was 15 and 16. A crew included an ambulance driver, two first aid and stretcher-bearers and a runner – a young lad who could run back and forth with messages. My uniform was an army issue gas mask, an armband to make me official, and, the greatest prize of all, an army-issue steel helmet.

When the air raid sirens sounded, I was the only kid on our street with an army issue gas mask and steel helmet reporting to Nuneaton General Hospital. Mother wasn’t too impressed; Dad thought it was okay as long as I took care. “That means,” he lectured one evening as the siren sounded, “you don’t run anywhere, whatever they call you. If you do run, always remember you may be running into danger, not away from it. When you hear a bomb screaming down, get yourself down, behind a wall if you can. And add an unbreakable water bottle to your gear. You’ll be surprised how thirsty you get when you can’t get a drink.”

I have told the story before about the long November night of “Coventration,” a word coined when a crowd gathered at the head of the street watching Coventry pulsate with fire nine miles away as the explosive bombs of German bombers found their target. The crowd was a mix of older men like my father, veterans of WW1, and young boys eager to get on our bikes and ride into Coventry to help where we could.

But the old Vets stopped us. “You don’t go back in until the barrage lifts,” was the wisdom of the elders. And they were right, of course, even if they were confusing falling bombs with big guns firing the creeping barrages of WW1.

One final story. When I was a child, we never wore the poppy around home. My father, a soldier badly wounded in a poorly organized war, was dismayed when the poppy was introduced two or three years after WW1 ended. In its early days, the poppy fund was often referred to as the Earl Haig Fund. My father and the group of Lancashire Fusilier veterans he stayed in touch with throughout his life were not endeared to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who once boasted that Germany regularly lost more men in battle than England and France “therefore we won.”

When Armistice Day came around, my mother would give me and my brother and sister a penny to buy a poppy to wear at school and church choir practice and service. “Don’t forget to take it off when you come home,” she cautioned. Ninety years later, I still wear the poppy – but not for Douglas Haig and the generals who never heard or felt the flies in their wounds.

I wear it, as John Masefield wrote, “for the men hemmed in with the spears … the men with the broken heads and blood running into their eyes … Others may sing of the wine and the wealth and the mirth … mine be a handful of ashes … of the maimed, of the halt and the blind in the rain and cold. ” Of these shall my songs be fashioned, my tales told and my poppy worn. (I’m sure Masefield would want to add “women” if he was still writing today, and my father would grump a bit but not disagree.)

Did Our “Yesterdays” Light The Way For Fools?

In a province with a tendency to boast about its education system, British Columbians were hard-pressed to find suitable words last week to describe the behaviour of students at the top of the learning tree at the University of Victoria (UVic).

The UVic campus overlaps three local municipal boundaries – Oak Bay, Victoria and Saanich – with Saanich police and fire services in closest proximity. They were first called on the night of Nov. 1st when multi-storey student residences became the playground of an unruly, often violent, mob.

The crowd, “several hundred,” was displayed in a large coloured photo on the front page of the Times-Colonist on Nov. 2nd. The photograph was taken from an upper residence room by a student who, fearing reprisal, didn’t want to be identified.

Saanich police media relations officer Const. Markus Anastasiades told the T-C an estimated 1,000 out-of-control revellers joined similar crowds on Friday, Nov. 1st and throughout Saturday and Sunday nights from dark to 4 a.m. He added: “What we are now seeing, we haven’t seen before. Some of them are students, some of them are not. The university is being seen as a gathering ground for young people.”

In the same story, UVic associate director of public affairs Karen Johnson endorsed the suggestion that many of the people massing on campus were not UVic students, that there are rules and regulations for student conduct. Violation of those rules could result in disciplinary action – including expulsion.

When I first read about the riots at UVic, I was dismayed that students at one of our highest seats of learning could (a) let themselves be taken over by binge drinkers from the back alleys of the city, and (b) stand by and laugh when alcohol-fueled “invaders” threw exploding firecrackers into the crowd. Surely, even the dimmest of brains has registered stories of people losing eyes or fingers when even the most modest of devices explode.

I tried to comfort myself by remembering Shakespeare’s warning that there would be times in our life when we have to walk part of the journey in uncomfortable company. Shakespeare’s Macbeth said: “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

But, that would be cold comfort if not for the fact that Saanich police are planning an appropriate response. Concerned that the violence on the UVic campus will escalate each weekend, police will enforce the Trespass Act, the Liquor and Licensing Act and “any other statute that applies to those who are not lawfully on campus.”

A thankless task, but I’m happy we have someone to “throw the book at them.”