'It's overwhelming': One missing, desperation setting in for B.C. residents displaced by shattered Highway 8
A mental health crisis is growing alongside the humanitarian disaster in an area of British Columbia so hard-hit by floodwaters, one woman is missing, homes have been swept away and the only highway is shattered in more than a dozen pieces.
Floodwaters forced residents of the Nicola River valley, which is served by the Merritt-Spences Bridge Highway (also known as Highway 8), from their homes last week. Mounties now say one person didn’t make it out in time.
“Lillooet RCMP is investigating a report of a missing woman, who did not refuse but was unable to evacuate from a home on Highway 8, on Nov. 16, prior to it being washed away,” said Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, who added the woman’s family does not want her publicly identified.
“The flooding situation has made it difficult for family to get to a position where all close family can be notified and while every effort is being made, there are some extenuating circumstances which are making it impossible.”
On Tuesday, the transportation minister revealed that Highway 8 is “significantly damaged” with 18 sections impacted and bridges either heavily damaged or gone altogether and evacuees unable to tend to their homes or livelihoods.
DISPLACED RESIDENTS FEELING DESPERATE
The representative of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District says while people have found places to stay and are generally alright physically, they’re dealing with the second crisis of the year, after a punishing wildfire season in the same area.
"Everyone left with just the clothes on their back, it's an overwhelming situation,” said Steven Rice, director of Electoral Area “I” (Blue Sky Country).
“Everybody's hurting pretty bad, there's certainly no support there, it would be nice to have someone from the mental health world come to Spences Bridge and have an office time for a day or two.”
Rice explained that many people living in that valley are farmers or ranchers, some of whom retired to the area to build their dream home or hobby farms, and now find themselves uncertain what remains.
“All our canning is in the middle of our living room, we've got -20 C winters here we've got no BC Hydro, we have no phone lines, we have nothing,” he said. “We can't access our farms, we have to be helicoptered in to try and winterize.”
FUNDRAISER UNDERWAY AS GOVERNMENT OFFERS A GLIMMER OF HOPE
A technical expert with the Ministry of Transportation says there are many experts working on Highway 8, and they’re currently looking at forestry service roads to get people access to their homes.
“We have a team of project managers, engineers and construction experts that are gathering this week and working closely with local Indigenous and community leaders to start looking at options,” said Paula Cousins.
“Our priority is to look at wherever we can feasibly gain short-term and temporary access, and we hope to have an update for communities next week on where and if we can do that and when."
While the province just announced increased supports for evacuees, several fundraisers have sprung up to support the many ranchers, farmers and retirees in the area.
“We can hike to our house so we know it’s OK," said evacuee Mavourneen Varcoe-Ryan, who started a GoFundMe page for the region.
"We've definitely lost some of the land (that) got washed away along the front of the property, but we were able to winterize our home and get a few things.”
“I want everyone to have that opportunity to get into their home," Varcoe-Ryan added. "We’re trying to get people in there by hiring a helicopter to winterize and get personal items and winter clothes.”
She’s deeply grateful for the money already donated, while Rice pointed out the uncertainty and lack of timeline to be able to return home is creating considerable anxiety for everyone affected.
"They need to know, 'What kind of housing am I going to get?' I need to know, 'How long am I going to be out of my home?'” he said. “(Long-term) decisions can't even be made right now and that's a really frustrating part of the mental health aspect of this."