Thousands of people living in B.C.’s southern interior were evacuated during a massive flood not seen in hundreds of years. Now, as waters recede, churches are trying to help communities rebuild.
“Life is not the same hereafter” for many of Father Gabriel Chinnaperiannan’s parishioners and neighbours in Grand Forks.
“We are in recuperating mode,” he told The B.C. Catholic May 23. “We are reestablishing our communities once again, but most things cannot be reestablished because of the water.”
Father Chinnaperiannan is the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, which includes Sacred Heart Church in Grand Forks, Our Lady of the Lake Mission in Christina Lake, and Sacred Heart Mission in Greenwood.
About 415 properties in Christina Lake and another 175 in Grand Forks were under evacuation orders after rapidly melting snow, higher than average temperatures, and sudden intense rainfall caused local rivers to swell and overflow in May.
He said now as hundreds of people begin to return to their homes and businesses, some hard truths are settling in.
“They have been staying in (neighbours’) homes and makeshift shelters near the community centre,” and are now coming to realize some of their “properties or businesses cannot continue to be there for a long time. They have to be closed or moved to another place.”
That’s especially true of the low-lying areas hit hardest by the flood, he said.
“The government has come forward with subsidy to help people rebuild their houses. They are thinking of building elsewhere.” But in some cases, “even the government subsidy will not be able to help them. That’s what my people are telling me.”
So, Father Chinnaperiannan planned a special collection at all three of his parish communities to support evacuees on the weekend of May 26-27. He also opened the church hall to donations of food and clothing and welcomed anyone in the community to take what they needed.
Though his entire parish only has about 100 registered members, “everybody is willing to do something.”
While riverside towns like Grand Forks (which sits at the convergence of two rivers) faced the brunt of the damage, other areas in B.C. also saw the effects of the flooding.
In Osoyoos, Father Peter Tompkins said several St. Anne’s parishioners with lakeside homes were putting up sandbags and worrying about their properties.
“There are some structures that would be safe, because they were built on high ground, and others next door to them would have water in them,” he said.
The city has bright orange barriers up to hold water back from the roads, and the pastor said as of May 23 highways are open and his travel has not been significantly impacted. “Most of the town is fine,” he said. “Our issue here is simply the homes built on Osoyoos Lake.”
The nearby Chopaka reserve also faced a weeklong evacuation order when the Similkameen River rose over its banks. Father Tompkins, also a pastor there, said there were concerns the bridge that connects the town to Hwy. 3 would not hold, but people have since been able to return.
According to Kim Jacobs, executive assistant to the bishop in the Diocese of Nelson, all church properties – including churches, schools, or rectories – were undamaged by flooding.
She added retired priests stepped in to help celebrate Mass in communities that were closed off due to highway flooding and had become temporarily unreachable by their pastors.
The neighbouring Diocese of Kamloops was unaffected by flood waters.