This is a story about climate change. But it’s far more than that—it’s a story about the human costs of catastrophic climate change. And it’s about human resiliency—a quality that is infinitely varied. What is a shattering event for some may not be for others. This leads to the obvious question: How does a community recover from disaster? Since the catastrophic landslides of July 12 and 13, 2012, Johnson’s Landing has been struggling to answer just that question. The massive scar left on the mountain mirrors the impact on the ‘interior landscape’ felt by residents. While some residents had no choice but to leave, others who remained are doing their best to move forward. Yet even these hardy souls find that they must deal with a community that is forever changed.
Amanda Bath, in her book Disaster in Paradise, puts it this way: “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.”
Angele and Richard Ortega, owners of Johnson’s Landing Retreat Centre, recently decided to put the centre up for sale. Had the first slide hit a day or two earlier it would have claimed the lives of Richard and three others who were doing work on the water box. Angele says the lingering perception of the community created by the media is that Johnson’s Landing is not safe, and this has hurt their business. Cutting property taxes in half has saved them money. However, the day of the slide a group of 20 being brought to the centre had to turn back, at a loss of $12,000 for a 12-day retreat. When Angele arrived back from a distribution run for Issues magazine that Friday, Richard had to canoe around the foot of the slide to bring in the supplies she’d picked up. The formerly shallow bed of Gar Creek was scoured to a depth of 20 feet in places. Before the slide it was like a “fairy dell,” says Angele, but now looks like “a Wal-Mart parking lot.”
“These guys here are the most inventive guys. Within two days we had trucks coming in getting us water.”
Harvey Armstrong’s pottery studio wasn’t destroyed but was too close to the slide zone to be deemed safe anymore. He’s since moved his studio to nearby land owned by his wife Kate O’Keefe and is producing pottery again. A former schoolteacher, she came to the Landing in 1989 with a different partner to retire early. “It’s kind of the urbanite’s dream,” she says, “to homestead and grow your own food.” Armstrong came in the ‘70s from the US, although he wasn’t a draft dodger, and raised a family here. For her the deep scar of the slide remains. As stated in Bath’s book, O’Keefe now feels as if she’s always “either walking toward or away from the slide.” Both are finding their social lives much diminished as friends moved away. That means being out of the community several days each week to visit friends in Kaslo.
“It changes the whole social dynamic of the community,” says O’Keefe. “My social group is not here so I’m always having to leave. And that’s hard because I love my life here, and I love the Landing.”
Patrick Steiner and his wife Colleen are finding it a challenge to remain on the land as farmers. Patrick now supplements his incomes as Kaslo’s part-time food security coordinator. Farming here has always been a challenge and now with the land devalued by 70 percent, there’s little hope of getting back their equity or getting loans for developing the property. He sees this as a powerful barrier to young families coming in, since affected residents are unlikely to sell their properties at such hugely devalued rates. And while most residents had enjoyed the Landing for decades, Steiner’s family had only been there a year and a half when the slide struck. So the majority of their time there has been living in a post-disaster zone. The lack of a permanent water system is a particular challenge for farming.
“It’s not like the slide happened and then things went back to normal. People have pulled together and are trying to make it work but to me it still feels pulled apart. Even though we’re coming up to three years on it’s still really fresh here.”
Bob Yetter, whose property sits on an ‘island of safety’ due to the topography of the slide zone, is more optimistic. Like many residents, however, he remains frustrated by the continuing water supply problem. Because the community is now ‘under the microscope’ of government attention, any public water system must be engineered to regulation and be approved by Interior Health. That means a much more expensive system than rural residents are used to having to build, according to Rik Valentine – one they’re struggling to find the funds for. Residents are grateful to Gerry Rogers, whose spring has remained the main water supply since the slide. In terms of the social disruption, Yetter says he saw this starting before the slide when high speed broadband came in. He remains cautiously optimistic about the future for the community.
“In the weeks following the slide when I’d hear a loud noise, and I was in the house, I needed to quickly discern what that sound was. And generally now I feel like that’s gone for me most of the time. There were some comments made in Mandy’s book about how it will never the same, which may be true, but Johnson’s Landing will be just fine.”
For Deb Borsos, an accomplished artist, the slides catapulted her into a completely new role as emergency social services coordinator for the regional district. She worked with Noreen Clayton, Emergency Program Coordinator for Kaslo and Area D, and has established a local emergency preparedness website. An emergency evacuations course was held March 5th at the new Kaslo Emergency Services Centre. Some residents recalled being treated dismissively by search and rescue crews and authorities during the aftermath. Resident Eric Schindler wanted to locate Petra Frehse’s home for crews but was not allowed into the slide zone for two days. Bob Yetter watched crews digging in the wrong place for the Webber home before finally being allowed to stake it out for them.
“Definitely local knowledge is invaluable to have, particularly in rural and remote smaller communities,” says Borsos. “Sometimes I think it just comes down to personality conflicts. They have a job to do and they don’t know anyone here and it’s very difficult for everybody.”
Gerry Rogers, a retired worker with the Ministry of Transportation and Highways, says the slide zone continues to be monitored. The debris field has only shifted by a matter of inches in the three years since the slides, so he feels confident the danger is past. But loss of access to the beach (the road has been deactivated) is another scar on the community psyche. The beach had been a favourite gathering place for residents. Now, some simply don’t feel safe there anymore. Like Yetter, Rogers remains cautiously optimistic about the future for Johnson’s Landing, and still has sensitivity to loud noises.
“For quite awhile afterward I’d hear a plane come over the mountain, I’d have to stop and listen and ask myself, what am I hearing here? I still notice planes more than I might have in the past. It leaves a bit of a hole in the community. But in actual fact time heals all wounds.”
Several of the residents I interviewed commented hopefully on the fact that a new resident has purchased the Madill property. Carl Peterson had raised a family in Johnson’s Landing before selling the home to the Madills and moving to the US. Peterson now has grandchildren and his family is interested in spending vacations in the community.
“I think we’ve reached the point where we don’t really have enough people to have a community,” says Kate O’Keefe. “What would make me happy going forward would be more people coming in to live full time on the land.”
Not reported in the media accounts of the landslides was the fact that another home, the summer home of Eddie Washington was also destroyed. Washington graduated from one of the last classes of the Argenta Friends School. The Rachel Rozzoni home had to be demolished due to being within the unstable area of the slide zone.