As the Fraser River rises ever higher this spring freshet, memories of the great flood of 1948 are evoked by many Chilliwack residents.
While neither the weather conditions nor the flood infrastructure are as bad as they were 70 years after that flood, there is some level of concern about what could happen this year.
From Mayor Sharon Gaetz to Premier John Horgan to old-timers on the streets, 1948 is more than just a distant memory. The aftermath is a warning heeded by officials when planning for the future.
“We MLAs have been travelling up the Fraser to take stock of what will potentially be one of the worst flooding seasons we’ve seen in British Columbia in a considerable period of time,” Horgan said in Chilliwack last week.
|Three men with row boat at front door of Ronald W. and Dorothy Toop home during the 1948 flood. (Photo courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives [1972.011.003])<|
“We’ve had references to 1948, we’ve had references to 2012. That depends on how quickly the snowpack melts and whether we have, crossing my fingers, whether we don’t have additional rainfall in the mountains.”
So what did happen in 1948 and why is it different than this year?
First of all, in the winter of 1947/1948 there was extremely high snow accumulations in the mountains. Then, in early spring 1948, it was unseasonably cold, which did not allow for normal spring run off.
This is different from 2018 when we had similarly high snowpack, but a very warm spring leading to a lot of water coming down early.
April and early May of 1948 was a cool period, but then in late May it not only got hot, it rained, which, along with the snowpack, created the perfect storm for flood conditions.
According to the flooding history put together by the Chilliwack Museum, with memories of the huge flood of 1894, the community felt protected after the Sumas Lake Reclamation project, which served as a preventive measure against further flooding.
Dikes, already not nearly up to modern standards, were neglected and the situation was ripe for tragedy.
Then the water came.
(See below for more photos.)
On May 26, 1948 – 70 years ago from this coming Saturday – the dike in Agassiz broke as the Mission gauge was at 21 feet (6.4 metres), according to the Chilliwack Museum’s online history of the flood.
On May 28, the river reached 23.05 feet (7 m) at the Mission gauge and there was a major break in the Semiault dike, which was soon repaired. By May’s end, it was at 24 feet (7.3 m), and in June the waters peaked at 24.73 feet (7.54 m), only a foot lower than in 1894.
“Dykes continued to fail as the Cannor dyke broke and small breaks occurred in the Semiault dyke. People were evacuated from Greendale and Herrling Island and many evacuees found refuge at Cultus Lake.”
Greendale was inundated, as was downtown Chilliwack.
By the time the floodwaters receded, total damage was $20 million with 16,000 people evacuated, 2,300 homes damaged or destroyed and 70,000 acres of farmland covered in water, according to Carol Baird’s story on the flood in the book The Chilliwack Story.
One anecdote shared of the flood came from the late city councillor Dorothy Kostrzewa whose family lived in Chilliwack’s Chinatown at the time.
Kostrzewa recalled her brothers diving into the muddy waters to pull vegetables out of the ground.
“I think that this is one of the things that we chuckle about is who can bring up the most vegetables and can hold their breath under water,” she said.
The damage to farmland was bad, but also many livestock perished as, in some cases, people had to evacuate quickly.
After the flood of 1948, all dikes were widened and heightened with gravel, silt and dirt. Many dikes were upgraded, including: the Rosedale dike, the Cannor dike, the Vedder Canal and a new dike built, the Glendale dike.
The network of dikes that now surround Chilliwack have been upgraded and maintained since 1948 to be sufficient against the flood levels of 1894 by being four feet above the high watermark.
So does Chilliwack have anything to fear in 2018, 70 years after the great flood? Likely not, according to director of engineering for the city David Blain who said we are not looking at any forecast of water levels that high.
By May 18, the forecast peak of the river was to come May 21 at 6.57 metres at the Mission gauge, according to the BC Forecast Centre.
Some residents of Carey Point and the Ballam Road area were evacuated and some were under alerts, but the dikes in Chilliwack are well able to withstand seven metres at the Mission gauge and higher.
Still, memories of 1948 are never far from the minds of those looking after flood protection year after year in the city and while the infrastructure isn’t perfect, most fears will never materialize.
“We live beside the river and every single year at this time we know here is going to be a freshet and every single year we worry about the weather we worry about rain, sunshine we worry it’s going to come too fast and it’s going to flood our people,” Mayor Sharon Gaetz said last week.