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One year after floods submerged Sumas Prairie, farmers still struggle to get back on their feet

‘When we talk about the flood, we feel like crying,’ says Jaswant Dhillon
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(From left) Jaswant Singh Dhillon, Dave Martens, Davinder Singh Deol and Satpal Singh Sangha. (Dillon White/Black Press Media)

Last November, Jaswant Singh Dhillon arrived at his newly built house in a boat. He searched for priceless family items, but they remained unfound, drowned in over three feet of floodwater.

“We lost everything,” Dhillon said. “The government had many warnings that the diking system could fail. Now who will pay?”

Farmers in the Sumas Prairie area say the emotional and financial cost of the experience endures one year later.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Dhillon said. “It’s financially and emotionally very difficult. We don’t know how we’re going to recover, when we’re going to recover and what the future really holds. So that uncertainty is causing, even within family, a lot of stress.”

Dave Martens is a neighbouring poultry farmer on Tolmie Road and also suffered devastating losses during the flood.

“I had 40,000 birds that died in the barn,” Martens said. “I don’t really like talking about it too much because, believe it or not, it still affects me.”

“When we talk about the flood, we feel like crying,” Dhillon said. “When we remember everything.”

RELATED: Abbotsford couple hope flood-relief funding covers farmers’ losses

Dhillon finished building his home just months before the November floods. The cleanup took six months and it still isn’t completely finished. He spent upwards of $400,000 to repair damage on his home. Dhillon said he received $136,000 from Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA).

The farmers say the DFA has been ineffective in the recovery effort because of their insistence on distributing funding for essentials only.

“We’re all in the same playing field on that,” Martens said. “My house on the farm – I got nothing for it. We’re stripping the siding off the house because there’s all this water sludge inside the walls. So they have still not given us (funding), and this is more than a year we’ve had an application in to Disaster Financial Assistance.”

They say the DFA will not cover costs for multiple damaged rooms that serve the same purpose such as kitchens and bathrooms. They also say the DFA doesn’t take into account the cost of original items. Dhillon bought a stove for $7,800 shortly before the floods and received $500 from the DFA.

“They don’t cover paint and they don’t cover flooring because it’s not essential,” Martens said. “If they want us to be out here managing our farms and rebuilding them, we have to have them livable.”

While the farmers rely on DFA for their houses, they rely on AgriRecovery for their farms.

Dhillon’s 20-acre blueberry farm featured 15-year-old plants and was left bare in the wake of the floods. Davinder Singh Deol is also a blueberry farmer on the Interprovincial Highway just minutes away from Dhillon’s farm. His farm was also devastated and required months of cleanup.

Deol bought blueberry plants from nurseries in the United States, but prices have increased due to demand, inflation and exchange rates.

“It’s supply and demand,” Deol said. “It was $3 and (the same) blueberry plant is now $5.40. So they’re making money.”

Since the blueberries can’t be planted until spring, Deol can’t get insurance for the plants he bought. The farmers said they don’t expect to make income from their farms for at least five years.

Deol says the young blueberry plants require more care than the older plants.

“Small plants (need) more babysitting,” he said. “Just like kids – diaper changes, food, everything. Plants are the same.”

Martens said AgriRecovery has been more effective for the farms than the DFA was for their houses, but it won’t make them whole.

“I’m not in the berry business but many of my fellow neighbours here – they’ve been hit extremely hard,” he said. “Their (recovery) is going to be much longer term. Just look at the field. I have to just look out the window. They’re not going to produce any income off these fields for some time.”

The farmers were eligible for an hourly wage of $25 during the cleanup process under AgriRecovery. However, when their hours were submitted, they were faced with suspicion.

“We feel shame when they doubt us,” Dhillon said.

Deol says farmers with larger properties faced longer cleanup times. The same jobs would require more hours due to the difference in property sizes.

RELATED: ‘It was devastating’: Sumas Prairie woman shares story of flood damage to family farm

“It’s not a cookie-cutter mould,” Martens said. “They’re going to need longer help. And that would be my takeaway. It’s just longer term income support.”

Dhillon says the government is responsible for the damage done to their properties during last November’s floods.

“The government? They listen to our story very carefully,” Dhillon said. “But when we need something, they do not care.”

The farmers still paid property taxes to the city this past year.

“They gladly accepted our tax dollars and we pay a diking tax on all our properties for protection,” Martens said. “I’ve been here 32 years and, yes, we knew we were building on a floodplain. We knew we had to sign a restrictive covenant on that. But I also expected if they’re taking our tax dollars … that they were going to be investing that money into that (diking) infrastructure.”

The heavy rainfall facing the area in the upcoming weeks and months worries the farmers.

“Even in the nighttime when the rain makes noise on the windows and roof, (it makes you nervous),” Dhillon says. “If a flood came today, (it would be the) same again.”

For more, see The Abbotsford News’ special section Stronger Together. The Flood: One Year Later.

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Jaswant Dhillon searches his home in the aftermath of last November’s floods. (Jaswant Singh Dhillon photo)


Dillon White

About the Author: Dillon White

I joined the Mission Record in November of 2022 after moving to B.C. from Nova Scotia earlier in the year.
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