Grand Forks and the Boundary Region Flood Response

In 2018, Grand Forks and the Boundary Region in British Columbia (BC) experienced the worst flooding in their recorded history; prompting the implementation of the Boundary Flood Recovery Strategy. After a week of high temperatures and three days of heavy rainfall the confluence of the Kettle and Granby Rivers exceeded the 200-year (0.5% annual probability) flood level. Preconditions for the flood included record snowpack at 240% of average for early May, a heat wave that initiated rapid melting, and 40 mm of rain over much of the Kettle River watershed. As a result of the flooding, the region was faced with nearly $40 million in damage, over 1500 evacuees, and drinking water advisories. Across the region, homes, trailers, and farms were submerged in dark flood waters, forcing thousands of people from their homes and requiring 30 rescue evacuations in the immediate aftermath. Grand Forks’ lowest-income neighbourhoods were the most heavily impacted from the 2018 flood, which is not unique to major flooding events. The Boundary Flood Recovery Strategy was a community-led and involved collaboration between the Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary Emergency Program, City of Grand Forks, many community partners, the Red Cross and the Province of BC.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

The Grand Forks model of flood response and recovery was based on a partnership between the Regional District of Kootenay-Boundary Emergency Program, the City of Grand Forks, and multi- stakeholder leadership from across a number of sectors in the community. The flood had significant social, psychological and health impacts on the community, particularly for the low-income, homeless/precariously housed, elderly, women and Indigenous peoples. The neighbourhoods that were most impacted were North and South Ruckle and Johnson Flats. These neighbourhoods include a larger proportion of rental housing than other parts of Grand Forks as well as many older houses in need of maintenance and repair.

In June of 2018, citizens affected by the recent flood were engaged in a conversation to hear what steps were in motion to advance the community from the Response phase of the flood event to Recovery phase, as well as to understand the different roles in each phase, and to have their questions answered by a panel of representatives involved in the Recovery Plan. The first step was to do a hydrological impacts assessment of the entire river system in order to obtain much needed data about the river flow and how it had changed, the channels it had carved, the soil effects and the debris that had been deposited along its length. The study would allow the Recovery Team to make informed decisions on where to enhance flood protection that would not create an impact on downstream areas. A separate flood hazard assessment within the City of Grand Forks also recalculated the 200-year flood level and updated mapping of the floodplain. This information was essential to support construction of new flood control structures under the Critical Infrastructure plan to restore and rebuild dikes, pathways, roadways, and sanitary and storm sewer systems.

Identifying Actions

A defining feature of the Boundary Flood Recovery was an intentional decision to build local capacity for a community- led recovery effort. As a result, a five-pillar recovery management model was developed which included; Critical infrastructure, Wellness, Economy, Environment, and Housing. The model emphasized on strong and collaborative leadership, local capacity building, and use of a case management approach to identify actions. This was important to ensure the response effort was aware of and acting on a range of needs from populations that would not have sought out support on their own. Personal relationships and trust were established between those most impacted and the lead agencies. The City of Grand Forks, with support from the RDKB, reached out to the federal and provincial governments for money to help build the flood protection projects. The federal government suggested accessing funding by applying to their existing Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund. The provincial government did not have an existing program like that, so they instead asked the BC Treasury Board for spending authorization. Together they committed more than $50 Million to help the City for the construction of new dikes and stormwater systems and the naturalization of over 11 hectares of floodplain.

Implementation

In the case of Grand Forks, the most effective flood recovery role was that led by well-funded and supported local organizations. Risk/vulnerability assessments and advance planning went beyond technical components and included considerations of health and wellbeing for diverse populations, including cultural safety for Indigenous peoples. There is still a need to work with rural and remote areas that are likely to be impacted to understand who lives there and how floods or fires will impact these populations and the economy specifically. The actions implemented embodied three themes that contributed to their success which were:
  1. Distributed and Collaborative Leadership: The Grand Forks model was described as a “distributed” and “collaborative” leadership approach founded in trust. A lead agency was invited to coordinate the response for each pillar. The pillars worked together to “deal with issues adaptively as they emerged.” The Wellness recovery pillar provided leadership to coordinate the health and social response from the flood, including outreaching to most affected populations.
  2. Local Capacity Building: It was a priority to first look for community leaders who had expertise and capacity to play a leadership role in the recovery management model. Only after community capacity had been explored were outside experts brought in. This model helped impacted populations, as it supported local agencies that are most knowledgeable about community need.
  3. Case Management Approach: The model used a case management approach that provided individualized outreach and engagement to different populations in the community. This was important to ensure the response effort was aware of and acting on a range of needs from populations that would not have sought out support on their own. Personal relationships and trust were established between those most impacted and the lead agencies.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The model’s emphasis on strong and collaborative leadership, local capacity building, and use of a case management approach contributed to its success. The model revealed the importance of prioritizing leadership from and capacity building with local organizations in response and recovery, as they have the knowledge, experience, relationships and trust to support those populations in the community most impacted. It is also important to work towards a better understanding of vulnerabilities experienced by sub-populations in rural and remote areas. Moving forward there is a need for improved and timely mental health supports for populations most impacted. It is also important to clarify roles and expectations across levels of government to avoid unnecessary wait times and inefficiencies. This clarity is also significant for finding housing solutions which remains to be a huge challenge as the homeless were one of the most vulnerable population groups during the flood. Additional resources for local family and health organizations and upstream planning, including social planning in regard to gender diversity and gendered impacts, will improve climate change resilience. Questions such as; “what’s the community’s level of readiness and what supports might service providers need to prepare for flood season?” were brought up during implementation and answering these is an important step in future flood preparedness plans. Finally, the initiative revealed that there is value in sharing the experiences and lessons learned of the Grand Forks flood with other flood prone communities in B.C.

Next Steps

The city of Grand Forks is in the middle of the major flood mitigation program including flood protection works and managed retreat / floodplain naturalization. Not all of the documentation is complete and published so this case study is best seen as a snapshot in time. This information will be updated after a follow-up next year when the major works are complete or going into their final stages and more of the documentation is complete.