Disaster in Paradise: Book Review

Living in the Kootenays we can sometimes forget that nature is a force to be reckoned with and respected. And in the age of rapid climate change, the ground is literally shifting beneath our feet, as Johnson’s Landing residents tragically discovered in July 2012. One of the survivors of the landslide that killed four people, Amanda Bath, has just published her memoir of that experience. Titled Disaster in Paradise: The Landslides in Johnson’s Landing, the book has just been released by Harbour Publishing.

Originally from London, England, Bath met her husband Christopher Klassen on Manitoulin Island in 1992 and never looked back. Despite the potential for culture shock, moving from one of the world’s largest cities to the isolation of Johnson’s Landing, she not only adjusted well but soon ‘went native.’ Her love for the breathtaking beauty of the north Kootenay Lake region shines through her prose, as if she were born to the place. Early in the book she recalls how prior to the landslide she used to pause at Gar Creek as at an “altar.” “The creek was, to us, a living presence with a soul, a spiritual place.”

That sanctuary was brutally ripped apart on July 12 and 13, 2012 when some 300,000 cubic metres of mud and debris shot down the mountainside at speeds exceeding 100 km/hr in two separate slides. The home of Petra Frehse was buried in eight metres of material, leaving no hope of survival. Like Bath, Frehse was another person who, despite not being native to the Kootenays, found her heart’s home here. The landslide also buried the Val Webber home and it quickly became apparent to RCMP and Vancouver’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) team that the family could not have survived the impact. The slide had then followed the Gar Creek pathway to the lake, where it flattened Bath and Klassen’s home near the beach. Geotechnical reports generated after the landslide noted evidence of similarly catastrophic slides thousands of years previously. But Bath notes the increasing frequency of serious landslides in BC—particularly since 1999—due to global warming.

Bath & Klassen's home after the landslide in Johnson's Landing. Courtesy Amanda Bath

Bath & Klassen’s home after the landslide in Johnson’s Landing. Courtesy Amanda Bath

It was only a quirk of fate that saved their lives—Klassen was in Oregon visiting family and Bath had arranged to visit Kaslo the day of the first slide. She’d planned to go to Kaslo Tuesday but that week it had to be Thursday, the day of the landslide. The fates intervened a second time when she and a friend went back to Johnson’s Landing by boat on July 13 to try to rescue the family cat, Ozzie. Within moments of landing at the beach, Bath heard “an ear-splitting cracking noise” on the hillside above and made it back to the boat with only seconds to spare. Her narrow escape was captured on video by news crews.

The Webber home buried beneath the landslide of July 12, 2012. Source: CBC

Incredibly, the seismic shifting of the mountain that holds Gar Creek was felt by sensitive individuals prior to the actual slide. In a chapter titled ‘Dreams and Portents,’ Bath relates how her niece Margie Smith, who was in Vancouver, had a dream where she saw the Webber home buried in mud. “I saw the whole thing coming down, just the way it is now,” she recalled. “I watched it cover Diana’s house, knowing they were all inside. I knew the whole family had died.” Just minutes before the slide hit the Webber home, Diana had been on the phone to her friend Lila Taylor saying she felt uncomfortable and needed to get out of the house. Taylor writes of a dream visitation from Diana, comforting her friend about her loss.

Bath writes of how the disaster shook her to the core, damaging her trust in an idyllic landscape she and Klassen had enjoyed peacefully together for nearly two decades. She quotes author Adam Gopnik: “We had faith in the benevolence of the universe, in a compact the world had made with us that all things would turn out well. The world makes no compacts with you at all.” Margie Smith, who grew up in Johnson’s Landing, explains how landscape becomes a part of our character, like a family member. “It’s so tough to lose four people. But it is also hard to lose this land. It’s always been home to me and is such a special place for so many of us – it’s almost like losing another person.”

Bath writes: "Two old survivors stand on the site of their former home. The view down the lake is still stunning!"

Bath writes: “Two old survivors stand on the site of their former home. The view down the lake is still stunning!”

Bath is candid yet diplomatic about both the triumphs and the failures of the rescue and recovery operation. Many volunteers and staff put forth heroic efforts, such as backhoe operator Duncan Lake and RCMP officer Chris Backus, to name only two of many. Yet the system in many respects has failed the residents of Johnson’s Landing. In a stroke of absurdity, almost no effort was made to tap into local knowledge of the community. Crews kept digging in the wrong location for Webber’s house before finally allowing Bob Yetter to advise them as to the exact location. “We were basically treated like we were in the way,” said Yetter. A sterling exception was Corporal Backus, who was consistently helpful and approachable. “You have to show people you’re a human being,” said Backus. “As a culture, the RCMP sometimes forgets its humanity…”

This aerial photo shows how the slide swept across the bench land that held the Frehse and Webber homes in Johnson’s Landing. Source: Vancouver Sun

To add insult to trauma, insurance companies refused to pay out, claiming that landslides fall under the ‘acts of God’ category and are therefore not eligible for compensation. The Provincial disaster relief program would only compensate for 80 percent of the primary residence. That cost residents thousands of dollars for losses of outbuildings and land now declared uninhabitable. Yet taxes must still be paid on these properties despite the fact they will receive neither compensation nor services. According to Bath, the disaster relief program seems to be focused on urban rather than rural victims of natural disasters. “It wouldn’t have broken the budget,” she says. “The government would only have had to buy out about three homes in the Landing. I think they’re very afraid of setting a precedent.” Testifying to the urban/rural divide in BC culture, Andy Shadrack, regional director for the area at the time, was more forthright. “As far as I’m concerned, the provincial government has absolutely failed the people in Johnson’s Landing… If this was somewhere in the Lower Mainland, it would have been settled and the people would have been bought out.” (italics mine)

Bath writes with skill and precision, given the fact that she was experiencing post-traumatic shock and grief. She credits author Holley Rubinsky for vital assistance editing the manuscript. Her prose reads with the intensity of a thriller, but always leavened by Bath’s capacity for thoughtful reflection. She succeeds in writing an account that is deeply moving yet never leaves the reader mired in despair. Too often the media resorts to glib platitudes about humanity’s ability to bounce back from trauma, ignoring the emotional aftermath. Bath strikes the perfect balance: “Human beings are resilient,” she writes in Disaster in Paradise. “You think you’ll never recover, and in some ways you don’t—you are no longer the same person you were. But in time you move forward and forge a new path. We the bereaved are like war veterans whose legs and arms have been severed. Nothing can bring back those limbs, but we learn strategies to function around the losses.”

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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