Last Saturday night, Spencer Coyne, the mayor of Princeton, BC, dragged himself home after a sixth day in a row that led his small mountain town’s recovery efforts from the catastrophic flood that swept through it a week earlier.
As he played on the floor with his 11-month-old son, Quinisco, he dozed off. His partner, Jessica Blue, took pity on him, leaving him there.
“I woke up completely numb on one side,” Mr. Coyne the next morning from his town hall office. He says he got five hours of sleep – the best he has managed since the flood hit.
Princeton, like other BC communities, including Tulameen, Coalmont, Merritt and Abbotsford, was hit hard by the floods from a weather phenomenon called an “atmospheric river” of precipitation, which broke at least 20 precipitation records in the southern part of the province.
It triggered deadly landslides and extensive floods that wiped out parts of major highways. In Princeton, 288 kilometers east of Vancouver and sandwiched between the Similkameen and Tulameen rivers, Tulameen broke a dike that protected the city, in two places about 600 meters apart.
The floods have also pushed small-town mayors and councilors to the extreme as they struggle to lead their communities through recovery efforts to an extent few could have imagined when they ran for office.
Mr. Coyne was at his office early Sunday. Wearing an orange Town of Princeton jersey and a ball cap and driven only by a remaining Subway cookie and a cup of coffee, he was working on a staff of 34 – a dozen management and office staff, the rest public employees out in the field.
The 43-year-old mayor is more often seen around town in work boots and a high-waisted vest or coat than a suit. He often breaks out in stomach cramps – humor helps in the face of disasters.
Mr. Coyne, born in Princeton, was elected three years ago in a landslide victory in which the entire sitting council was replaced by fresh faces.
He oozes an energetic love for the city, which he has channeled into sometimes heated discussions with officials at various levels of government who are not accommodating to what Mr Coyne thinks his city needs.
Last weekend, Mr. Coyne told reporters that he had asked for help from the Canadian Armed Forces but heard nothing. Asked what the federal government did to help in Princeton, he replied: “There is not much help from the federal government here.”
On Tuesday, a house fire broke out in the northern part of the city. Without water supply in that neighborhood, it was a challenge to turn off.
Water, gas and electricity were still off for more than 100 homes. The city’s four water mains are significantly damaged. Snakes running from fire hydrants around the city are used to supply water, but it is too polluted for use in cooking or washing. Even toilets in the many affected homes cannot be flushed out.
Conditions are still harsh in the city, and more wet and frosty weather is expected in the coming days. But on Wednesday morning, Mr. Coyne posted a picture of herself to a Globe and Mail reporter with soldiers in camo uniforms. “We’ll get a share,” was all he had time to write.
Later Wednesday, Mr. Coyne an update on Facebook. “We met with the Canadian force, they want to be around town, and then a division arrives to start working in the community. They can not go on private property, but we work with them to help with sidewalks and sandbags, ” he said.
“I can not express how relieved I am to have any help on earth.”
Mr. Coyne has deep roots in Princeton, where he lives on a family farm purchased around 1928.
“This is not just a place to live for me. This is my home,” he said, explaining his devotion to this city of 3,000 inhabitants. “There is no way to leave this place for me.”
Nor is there Julia Linquist if she can help it, even though she first moved to Princeton five years ago. In front of the house she rents, stacked neighbors, colleagues and people she barely knows, soaked belongings – including a mattress, a vintage radio and a giant stuffed penguin – into her muddy patio.
That Sunday morning, a rapid damage assessment team with the regional district completed assessments of the 295 homes affected when Tulameen blew up the dikes. The front doors of affected homes were marked with red, yellow or green posters.
Red meant that a home was likely to be damaged without repair and could not enter without special permission. Yellow meant that a less damaged home could come in for limited purposes, such as disposing of contaminated contents. Green meant the home could be reoccupied if it were not in an evacuation zone.
In Princeton, four homes received red notices. The number of yellow notices is in the high 200s. Some residents lost everything.
Ms. Linquist, 61, a chef at the local Little Creek Restaurant, had a yellow message on the door. On the sloping floor of her living room sat a large bucket filled with penguins of all kinds: rolled-up toy penguins, ceramic penguins, ceramic variants. A woman walked by with a dripping, stuffed penguin sticking out of a green garbage bag. Mrs Linquist looked at it hopefully, but was told it was not to be saved.
“I love penguins. I do not know why, ”said Mrs Linquist.
The night the flooding began, she received an evacuation alarm on her phone around 6 p.m. 22:30. She walked up to a nearby bridge over the Tulameen River but could not see how high it ran. She helped with sandbags in the pouring rain when the dike broke.
“I hurried home. I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down on the sofa and then heard a knock on the door.” An outsider shouted as the water gushed out over her sidewalk. “I grabbed a cat, a pair of jeans, underwear and socks. I walked out the door.”
When she opened the door, the murky water was almost to her waist. When she returned the next day – it had fallen to her knees – she found her second cat and penguins floating around on the ground floor.
At Princeton’s equipment yard, “water came in like a tidal wave,” Mr. Coyne. Two workers managed to escape when the water blew out of the windows of the truck they were sitting in. A total of five crew vehicles were destroyed. All of the city’s radios – plus tools, lawn mowers, snow throwers, clothing equipment, not to mention new Christmas lights designed to hang with wreaths along a stretch of scenic Kettle Valley Railway – are at the bottom of Tulameen.
But radios have been replaced, trucks borrowed, and emergency work continues. Princeton is in a race against winter. It must repair damaged gas, water and sewer lines and turn on heat and electricity in areas where it can before frosty weather can do more damage to unfinished repairs. Copper Mountain Mining Corp. has offered the city help with equipment. FortisBC is installing an elevator station at the sewer system.
But Mr. Coyne said the humanitarian portion of the recovery effort “falls through the cracks.” So he found the Red Cross a building where it can provide help to the residents.
Over social media, the city’s management asked members of Princeton Posse, the local Junior B hockey team, to help exhausted city dwellers and business owners. That night and the following days, players in their jerseys gave a hand in moving damaged items out of people’s homes. City council and staff were still trying to find ways to help the many displaced residents with long-term housing.
Shortly after kl. 11.30 Sunday, Mr. Coyne in his yellow Nissan Xterra and started driving around town, checking the crew’s progress and talking to residents about their needs. His cell phone rang constantly. He made a stop at the airport with a runway where the small lounge was crammed with people picking up dogs and cats in animal carriers.
K9 Advocates Manitoba, an animal rescue organization, had transported 76 dogs and cats to Abbotsford for adoption when landslides and roadblocks forced its truck to stop in Princeton. The animals were analyzed out to residents, who in response to a desperate Facebook post quickly offered to foster them despite the disaster unfolding in their city.
Now, after a week, members of ALERT, an organization based in Penticton, 70 kilometers away, which rescues pets and pets during disasters, helped load the animals on a two-engine plane operated by Oceanside Air Ltd. It would have to make the short flight twice to get them all to Abbotsford.
Mens Mr. Coyne drove around, waving people to him as he walked past. A man came to the window when Mr. Coyne paused for a moment and told him he was doing a good job. Another person said he was a practical mayor with a big heart.
Mr. Coyne ignored questions about whether he feels he is in at all. He noted that he and many of his staff, including his CEO, grew up in Princeton and know pretty much every inch of it. Mr. Coyne had studied history and sociology at university and planned to become a teacher, but did not graduate. When he returned to Princeton, he had a variety of jobs: he was an advertising salesman and political columnist for two local newspapers; a Zamboni driver; a manager at The Source electronics store; a restaurant cook.
“There’s a kind of constant crisis management going on in a restaurant kitchen,” he said. “You may have five things in mind at once.”
Such has been the case with the flood, but multiplied, and of course life and future are at stake. “But yes,” said Mr. Coyne, “I’m the first to ask for help when I need help. Do I know everything? No to hell. But that’s why I have a team. What we do not know, we call for help and ask. ”
Tulameen, which meandered past the city and excited about the atmospheric flood-stricken weather event, has bitten badly in Princeton. But the city is determined not to be swallowed up.
“This community is strong and resilient,” said Mr. Coyne. “I may be the face of the media for this right now, but it does not have much to do with me. It’s about people in society working together.”
The Canadian press
BC Flood: More from The Globe and Mail
Recent updates: Rain forecasts, emergency alarms, road closures and more
How do ‘atmospheric rivers’ work, and why did you land on BC so suddenly?
‘The end of the normal’: From summer fires to catastrophic floods, recurring tragedy unites BC.
Gary Mason: Canada’s climate bill is upon us. The cost of ignoring the warnings will be huge
Editorial: Rebuilding BC’s infrastructure must be a national priority
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