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Spilling stories on Kamloops' flooded past

John Matonovich has buckets of memories of the city he loves, having lived through the major flood events of 1948, 1972 and 1999
John Matonovich-flooding-1 HORIZ
Longtime Kamloops resident John Matonovich has experienced first-hand each of the three major floods and their various impacts — in 1948, 1972 and 1999. Matonovich has a friendly wager with his coffee buddies that this year’s flooding conditions may likely be like they were in 1972. He hopes he is wrong.

At 88 years of age, John Matonovich has a flood of memories of the city he loves, having lived through the major flood events of 1948, 1972 and 1999.

The longtime Brocklehurst resident arrived in Kamloops as a 14-year-old, one year before the flood of 1948.

Matonovich’ recalls seeing a water-covered McArthur Island and the South Thompson River level approaching where Kamloops City Hall currently stands today.

“There’s only a handful of us left in my generation,” Matonovich said. “Kamloops was only about 10,000 people.”

That year, floodwaters in Kamloops reached 345 metres above sea level at their peak on June 13, flooding large swaths of low-lying areas at a time before much flood-mitigation infrastructure was established. The high waters of 1948 forced hundreds of families to temporarily flee their homes and made Kamloops a figurative island for parts of May and June.

With McArthur Island completely under water, Matonovich remembers finding a canoe by the slough, which led him and a friend to explore above the submersed island.

“We went all over McArthur Island on this canoe,” he said. “You couldn’t see the island as there was about six feet of water.”

The situation on the south shore of the Thompson River was equally dire.

“In 1948, the water was over the bridge and they had to have 10 loaded wheat boxcars to hold the bridge down because they didn’t want it to float away. That’s how big the current in the water was,” Matonovich said.

He remembers seeing a sea plane anchored to the CP viaduct (adjacent to the current intersection of Lansdowne Avenue and Lorne Street) as water levels were right up to it.

“Seventy-five years ago, people didn’t have cabins out at the lake. Many didn’t have cars, so everybody came to watch the ball game in the big stadium where the Rotary Bandshell is. People used to come down, bring their lunches — the farm people — sit in the [Riverside] park, have their picnic and watch the ball games. That’s all there was to do on Sundays,” he said.

Matonovich said that 1948 flood year was frightening because nobody knew what was happening.

“They [the city] were afraid if the dam at Paul Lake were to burst, there would be a 50-foot wall of water that would come down,” he said. “We didn’t know from one minute whether we should leave our homes or whether Paul Lake was gonna come down. That was the biggest scare. We were on the alert, ready to move. The police came and they were shouting. People were totally disoriented.”

As the Kamloops Museum and Archives has noted: “The 1948 flood was the most destructive flood ever. On May 25, the earthen dam at Devick Lake burst, sending a thirty foot wall of water rushing down Heffley Creek.

Luckily for the residents, the roar of the water awoke them and gave them a chance to flee.”

Matonovich said this year’s weather conditions remind him of the spring of 1948 — being cold all of March, April and May, with temperatures suddenly warming in mid-June.

“Even if it is as bad as ’48, we have certain things in place now that we didn’t have 75 years ago. That’ll be a lot of help as far as flooding in the park,” he said.

The highest flood levels in the last 100 years in Kamloops came in 1972.

But the floods of 1972 are best remembered for a devastating event that took place on June 1, the day the water peaked, in the Oak Hills trailer park in Westsyde.

Matonovich recalls pitching in to fill sandbags in a Happyvale neighbourhood of Brocklehurst in the spring of 1972, near his home on Nicolani Street. He was the first to build on Nicolani and had the street named for his dad (Nick, dropping the “k”) and his daughter (“Lani,” with an “o” placed between), thus Nicolani Street.

But it was the Oak Hills neighbourhood that was hit hardest in 1972. A 150-foot section of an earthen berm burst, sending a flow of water into the trailer park and leaving it under about five feet of water.

According to the Kamloops Daily Sentinel, about 600 residents were displaced from their homes. In the days that followed, residents used boats to access their property and gather belongings.

In 1999, snowpack levels and weather combined to create a potentially dangerous situation in the Kamloops area. Forecasts predicted high water that could have approached 1972 levels.

That was not the case, but the water was high — peaking on June 24 at 344.7 metres above sea level, just shy of 1948 numbers and a half-metre short of 1972 measurements.

The city now has two permanent dikes in place — one protecting the north end of McArthur Island and the other along the beach at Riverside Park, which is part of ongoing rehabilitation work. Both appear as elevated walking trails, but are designed to protect each park’s infrastructure from a one-in-20-year flood event.

The River Forecast Centre has issued many flood watches and high streamflow advisories in the Kamloops region. As always, people are advised to steer clear of riverbanks and edges of creeks.