Canadian Pilots Rally to Supply Towns Isolated by Flooding

“How are they supposed to survive?”

Pilot Kim Alaric prepares to fly a planeload of food and supplies to Merritt, BC, a town cut off by the recent floods. Jesse Winter/Canada's National Observer

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This story was originally published by Canada’s National Observerand is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was cold and near sundown at the Langley, British Columbia, airport Friday afternoon as Shaun Bradley Heaps in his signature shorts greeted a team of fellow pilots returning from an emergency mission delivering food and necessities to flood-ravaged southern BC towns.

“There’s butter chicken and samosas over there,” said the pilot and member of the West Coast Pilots Club, pointing towards the glowing yellow door of a nearby hangar. The coolers filled with curry, boxes of crispy samosas, and chapatis hand-wrapped in aluminum foil were donated by a local Sikh temple earlier that day, he said.

Inside, roughly a dozen other pilots and volunteers were relaxing after delivering essential goods through rugged mountain passes. For more than two weeks, this volunteer flying squad—Heaps’ brainchild—has collected thousands of pounds of food and other essentials from across the Lower Mainland and used privately owned propeller planes and helicopters to deliver it to roughly 30 communities isolated after last month’s floods. Money for fuel and supplies has come out of their own pockets or from donations.

November’s devastating floods storms washed out bridges and roads, including this section of Highway 1, cutting off roughly 30 towns and hamlets across southern BC, including many Indigenous communities, from food and supplies.

Jesse Winter/Canada’s National Observer

On Friday alone, the crew shipped roughly 9,000 kilograms of goods to places like Merritt, Boston Bar, and Siska. “A bunch of private pilots are doing more than the federal government,” Heaps said as he waited for another flight to land.

While he acknowledged authorities have provided some support, people in the stranded communities are telling him the provincial and federal governments seem content to leave it to volunteers and donations to meet people’s ongoing needs. “So we’re just keeping on resupplying and resupplying,” he said. “How [else] are they supposed to survive?”

Held together with plastic wrap, each pile had been carefully built by the volunteers to contain most items on “shopping” lists sent to the group by impacted communities, said Brenda Lennax, the team’s dispatch manager. Lennax runs several small businesses in Maple Ridge, BC. When the floods hit, she told all her clients she was taking time off to help out—even as her own family was evacuated. “I’m supposed to be here,” she explained during a brief lull in the packing frenzy.

Volunteers rush to pack planes with food and necessities donated by community churches, temples, and mosques. congregations.

Jesse Winter/Canada’s National Observer

The first plane was loaded within 15 minutes: Costco-size boxes of granola bars and Kraft Dinner squeezed behind passenger seats. Twelve-packs of water and pop were propped against mega-packs of diapers, baby wipes, and toilet paper. Bags of chicken and livestock feed covered the floor. Fleece blankets filled any remaining crannies before the pilot latched a cargo net over the load to keep it in place.

“It has all been coming from all the Sikh temples, Sikh communities, Hindu temples, Jews, Muslims—all community churches are donating a ton of food,” explained the group’s supplies and provisions manager Pritpal Singh Sekhorn as he double-checked each load. “(The flying squad) is bringing everyone under one umbrella to reach the flood-affected communities as soon as possible.”

There are enough donations to fill three airport hangars and a nearby warehouse nearby—and Heaps said more keeps coming. “It’s endless. And if we need dog food, they send dog food. They bring batteries, horse feed…(we) make a phone call and it shows up.”

Most communities are still weeks or months away from regular road access and people and animals need to eat, so the excess of supplies is unlikely to go to waste. And with Christmas near, the flying squad is doubling its efforts to make the holiday easier for people cut off from friends and family.

“It’s all about love,” Lennax said.

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