Former Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun will always remember the shock he felt after hearing there had been a major breach in the Sumas Dike after torrential rains and flooding hit the area last November.
“I knew instantly what that meant, but I didn’t know how big the breach was until probably 10 minutes later, and I heard it was like 100 metres. I thought, ‘Hokey, doodle. That is a lot of water’ because the water was stacked up already,” he said.
Braun said he was “very worried” about the situation. During his 11 years on city council – three as a councillor and eight as mayor – he was well versed on the history of the former Sumas Lake.
The lake was drained in the 1920s to create new farmland on what became Sumas Prairie. The Barrowtown Pump Station was built to pump out the lake waters and keep the prairie dry.
But Braun knew there was always a potential for the lake to be refilled, as had previously occurred in 1990, when the Nooksack River in Washington state topped its banks and travelled north.
“I knew if that (Sumas Prairie) bowl filled up, that it could take a year or more to pump it out, so those were the initial thoughts going through my head. Then, of course, it was all the damage to the farms and farm houses and livestock,” he said.
“And I started hearing about cows drowning and all sorts of other stories. So those are thoughts that I will remember as long as I have my faculties.”
Braun was on high alert on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 14 and, as extreme rain continued throughout the night, he signed evacuation orders on Monday for portions of Sumas Prairie and Straiton.
He took a helicopter tour of the region that day, and the reality of the situation set in.
“It’s one thing to hear people telling you that there’s water on Sumas Prairie, but it’s quite another when you actually get up in the air at 3,000 feet and have a look at it,” he said.
City manager Peter Sparanese was with Braun on the tour, and Braun said the water was overtopping two or three kilometres of the dike like a “mini waterfall.”
“I said to Peter, ‘It’s just a matter of time when that dike’s going to break. I just don’t know where and when.’ ”
By Tuesday, the Nooksack River spilled over its banks, coursing across Sumas Prairie and resulting in the near-failure of the pump station, which couldn’t keep up with the excess water. Braun issued an urgent plea that evening for anyone still on the prairie to leave immediately or they would be risking their lives.
But the pump station held overnight, thanks in great part to the overnight work of crews – including numerous volunteers – who had built a mini dam around the facility to protect it.
A few days later – on Thursday, Nov. 18 – Braun issued another difficult statement, when he indicated that a levee would have to be built along Highway 1 for a stretch of 2.5 kilometres to hold back some of the floodwaters. The construction would have resulted in the expropriation of 22 homes, but by the following day, the water level had dropped and the levee was no longer needed.
Braun said the city was criticized for not meeting with the impacted farmers in advance of making the public statement, but he said there was no time, due to a rapidly changing situation that required quick decisions.
He said it was always his goal throughout the disaster to tell people the truth at the press conferences he led every day.
“I didn’t want any BS; no smoke and mirrors … I said, ‘We’re going to tell the public the good, the bad and the ugly, and they deserve it. They need to know how bad it is and is it going to get worse or it going to be better?’ ” he said.
Braun toured the community every day, often with Police Chief Mike Serr, and sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m. when he couldn’t sleep.
One of the first places he and Serr visited was WestGen, a livestock genetics company on Angus Campbell Road on Sumas Prairie. He said he will always remember the sight of cows being hauled out of the water by farmers and volunteers.
“These young fellows – they’re big strapping young men that were neck deep, waist deep, in water, and that water was cold in November, and they were shaking like a leaf because hypothermia was starting to set in.”
Braun said, at times, being the public face for the disaster was a “heavy burden,” but he relied on his faith and the support of his wife, Velma, to get him through.
“Early on, I actually dropped to my knees in my bathroom and prayed, ‘Lord, I need your help. I need wisdom. How do I deal with this? What do I say? What do I not say?’ … And I took it one day at a time and we got through those 36 days,” he said.
Braun, who chose not to seek re-election in October, said he will most remember the way that the community came together to help one another.
“With all of the negative news that we’re subjected to day in and day out, it restored my faith in humanity,” he said.
For more, see The Abbotsford News’ special section Stronger Together. The Flood: One Year Later.