It started innocuously enough, with a sunny May Saturday gradually clouding over and the rain starting to fall. Cache Creek mayor John Ranta, who had dropped his daughter off at the local park for a birthday party, described the initial rainfall as a sprinkling; but it was soon coming down harder. “Betcha that party will be over with that rain,” he remembers thinking. “Better go pick her up.”
And so began the biggest disaster in Cache Creek’s history. As Ranta drove down to the park, he could not know that a “dirty little cloud” parked over Lopez Creek to the east of town was about to disgorge more than 40mm of water in less than 45 minutes. It fell on the dry creek bed and surrounding gullies, all parched from lack of moisture and unable to absorb the vast amount of water that now descended.
Old Cariboo Road a year later. Photo by Barbara Roden.
Ranta helped clean up at the park. The rain was coming down harder by then, with some people taking refuge under trees. He and his daughter drove the short distance back to the house, and by the time they pulled into the driveway the rain was torrential. “It can’t keep raining this hard for long,” was Ranta’s thought as he waited in the car.
A minute or so later, with the rain showing no sign of slackening, it began to hail, and Ranta decided to leave the car and go inside. It was only a few paces to the front door, but by the time he got there he was soaked to the skin; “absolutely drenched. It was incredible, the amount of rain. And I wondered if everything was going to hold together all right.”
He went outside again and looked toward Stage Road, where he could see debris coming down the street, which had soon been turned into a river and was impassable. In the meantime, the water sweeping down from Lopez Creek was carrying with it mud, debris, rocks, and trees.
“It was so sudden and severe it plugged up the culverts,” says Ranta. “There’s no stopping it, once that happens. The water has to go somewhere.”
Where it went was everywhere, wreaking havoc from one end of town to the other. It swept away lamp standards, undercut banks, exposed gas lines, caused curbs, sidewalks, and gutters to crumble and break away, and ripped out a footbridge at the Dairy Queen park. Almost all of the Cache Creek park—the peaceful scene of a party just a short time earlier—was flooded. Had that been the extent of the damage, it would have been bad enough; but much worse was in store.
A few residences were knocked off their foundations. Dozens of homes and businesses had basements and garages fill with mud and debris, while scores more found their yards turned into foul-smelling swamps. The fire hall was compromised, and the water was calf-high at the junction of Highways 1 and 97. At one of the mobile home parks on Old Cariboo Road, a woman in danger of drowning was rescued by a passer-by in a pick-up truck, who waded through the water to help her to safety.
Cache Creek’s fire hall immediately after the flood (top; photo by Wendy Coomber), and a year later (below; photo by Barbara Roden).
Then the rain slowed and stopped, leaving the shaken residents to begin to assess the damage. Help began arriving immediately, as the town began the business of digging itself out. Crews and machinery began arriving from near and far. A state of emergency was declared, allowing the town to immediately access disaster funding.
The Thompson-Nicola Regional District helped the Village set up an Emergency Operation Centre, and the Red Cross arrived. People went door to door, to make sure everyone was safe and see what needed to be done.
Premier Christy Clark arrived on the scene, and said of the damage that “Unbelievable is the only word I can think of.” She promised to extend Emergency Social Services funding beyond the usual 24 hours for those who needed it, and said the province needed to err on the side of compassion.
However, it soon became apparent that many of those most severely affected would get nowhere near the amount needed to restore their homes and properties to pre-flood conditions. There is no such thing as flood insurance for homes in B.C., and provincial Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA) only covered 80 per cent of the “essentials of life”; such things as landscaping, yards, retaining walls, and discretionary things inside homes were not covered.
The sidewalk near the southern bridge over the Bonaparte River after the flood (top; photo by Wendy Coomber), and a year later (bottom; photo by Barbara Roden).
Some people soon learned that they did not qualify for DFA for anything. Kim Van Tine, whose home was one of the most severely impacted, was one of the first to find this out, when he was turned down for funding because the mortgage on the house was a private one, with another person’s name on the title.
“I had sold my other house. The deal was done, and my possessions were in the new house. The timing couldn’t have been worse in terms of when it all went down. The house was pretty much a write-off.”
He finds the government’s decision extremely unfair and unreasonable. “It was my house—no question about it—and when Christy Clark came to town she said the government would err on the side of compassion. It didn’t take long for them to start finding ways to deny claims.” While he understands that “things like this happen, and it’s not always the government’s responsibility to bail everyone out,” he is still frustrated by the lack of assistance.
“I was denied funding from the ESS. They wouldn’t provide us with any because they said we had ‘other resources’.” Van Tine assumes these “resources” were the fifth wheel trailer he and his wife ended up living in for three months while they repaired their house. “My wife wants to hit the road again, but I don’t think I want to go inside it ever again.
“I got no help from [local MLA] Jackie Tegart’s office. I talked to someone in her office and they seemed sympathetic, but I never heard back. I felt the government was against us from the beginning. They were hard-nosed, argumentative, and not interested in listening.
“I’m appalled at how I and others in the community were treated. Something is wrong, and needs to be overhauled. I’ve lived and worked in B.C. all my life, and have never asked for anything. I’ve lost all respect for Christy Clark and Jackie Tegart.”
He notes, as do so many others, that the community came together in a huge way. “Neighbours were helping neighbours; in some cases neighbours didn’t even know each other, but still helped. That’s what community is all about.”
Tammy Harkness agrees. She lost everything in her garage, including a sign that had been made for her father, Don Richard, many years ago by a friend. It was a small thing, but it meant a good deal to her, and she was overjoyed when her son was able to find and refurbish the sign, which is once again hanging on the property.
“Little things are important,” she notes. “My community was here for me. I lost some stuff, but I’m still here. Cache Creek and Ashcroft are great communities. We pulled together last year, and will in the future.”
Ranta acknowledges that the village has asked for financial assistance to tear down homes that were damaged beyond repair, but that the answer has been no. “It doesn’t seem fair.” He adds that they have also been turned down by the province for funding to restore the water diversion ditch behind Valleyview that overflowed and caused considerable damage. “There’s no documentation to show that the Village has an easement there. We’re trying to get funding to restore it to pre-event conditions.”
Restoration and renovation has been completed in many cases—“It’s a relief to have it over,” says Leona Paxton—but more remains to be done. An engineering study, to be paid for by the government, will look at Stage Road to see how it can be stabilized. Recovery in the Cache Creek park is ongoing, and even a year later it is in no shape to host any Graffiti Days events. “It’s an ongoing challenge to recover from that 40-minute event,” says Ranta, noting that it has so far cost the Village over $350,000 to repair the damage; more than it takes in in taxes in a year. He’s grateful for the provincial assistance that was received, however. “The government stepped up big time to help. It would have taken years and years if the community had had to do this alone.”
He echoes those who remark on how everyone pulled together. “I look at the community before and after the event, and recognize that some people suffered huge losses. However, the community pulled together; every man, woman, and child. It was heartwarming to see the output of support we received. The community has emerged as stronger, more closely-knit than before. It’s a testament to the resilience of small-town people.”
He cautions, however, that it could happen again. “It’s been called a one-in-200 year event. Lumby had a one-in-100 year event two years in a row. Meteorologists point to global warming and say that we’ll have more extreme weather events than in the past.”
The gentle rain is hardly extreme, on a Sunday in May in 2016, but it is persistent, and the hills are covered in clouds; regular clouds, not the dirty little one that wreaked havoc on May 23, 2015. “Here we are a year later, looking out the window at the rain,” says Kim Van Tine. Of the events of last May he says, “Now we have a sense of what it feels like when we hear of other disasters. You don’t have that sense when you’re sitting on the couch eating dinner and watching the news. It really gives you an understanding of how people’s lives are devastated.
“But the community has rebounded, and we’re all stronger at the end of the day. We just cary on.”