Thousands of people across British Columbia have found themselves stranded in unfamiliar and uncomfortable places this week as a storm battered the southern part of the province, leading to massive floods and mudslides that severed several crucial highways.
Many relied on friends and strangers to get through a harrowing start to their week. And, with timelines unclear as to when some of them will be able to return home, this social cohesion will continue to drive efforts to keep evacuees and stranded travellers comfortable. Here are some of their stories.
Motorists stuck bumper to bumper on B.C.’s Lougheed Highway Monday afternoon got a pleasant surprise when workers at Camp Hope on the eastern fringe of the Fraser Valley welcomed them into the religious retreat’s main lodge for a warm meal and a roof over their heads that night.
The lodge, just west of Hope, was quickly filled with about 250 people eager to avoid spending another night inside their cars after getting caught between two mudslides on the arterial highway across the Fraser River from the Trans-Canada Highway, large portions of which were also closed after extensive flooding.
“They didn’t even know we were there and when we came along and said, ‘Hey, come on in, come on in,’ they were just over-the-top grateful to leave their cars and have a place to eat and sleep – and bathrooms,” Bill Gerber, director of the centre run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.
The camp usually slows down in the winter months, but this year a crew has remained on site hosting 21 people from the Lytton First Nation who are still using the centre as emergency shelter after the catastrophic wildfire that destroyed their community this summer. At its peak occupancy, Camp Hope had more than 60 wildfire evacuees living there.
“These are members that had no homes to go back to or just weren’t allowed to return yet because there’s no services in the town of Lytton,” said Mr. Gerber, who is stuck in his home in Abbotsford but in constant contact with those at the camp.
The wildfire evacuees are sharing the communal space with the newly stranded and helped comb through the centre’s stock of donations from the summer to grab supplies for the new guests, said Mr. Gerber, whose sister is working in the kitchen.
“The people are very appreciative. They’re very patient, and there’s a very good spirit there,” he said.
The highway into Hope reopened Tuesday morning, but Mr. Gerber said the hotels there are all full and he expected many people to remain at the centre until roads farther west to Vancouver are once again passable.
His handful of staff are running out of milk and eggs, but the cooks decided against waiting in the rain with 70 or so others to get groceries in town, he said. They have enough staples such as beans and onions to cook a few more meals for the influx of guests.
“They’re having to get creative for their meals to produce enough of one thing for 250 people,” said Mr. Gerber, who is exploring airlifting food over the Fraser River from the nearby regional airport if the highway west remains closed much longer.
A light in the night
For Allison Barton Youssef and her husband, the route back home to Metro Vancouver from a weekend getaway in Kelowna took many unforeseen turns and led them through two communities – Merritt and Princeton – that were later evacuated because of flooding.
“The drive was extremely treacherous and we saw many cars abandoned along the road,” the photographer told The Globe on Tuesday. “My brain felt fried after driving through that.”
When the couple finally began to descend into the Fraser Valley early Sunday evening, they were crushed to find the small town of Hope without power and their route farther west blocked by more floods. They and hundreds of other motorists were drawn to the only place they saw with the lights on: the Silver Creek Travel Centre.
There, Bill Miller and his staff of 20 had enough juice in their generator to power his Ricky’s Grill franchise, a gas station, convenience store, washrooms and four showers – with hot water.
Most slept in their cars on Sunday night, but Mr. Miller says he opened up his 60-seat restaurant to 50 or so people to rest inside as best they could, giving priority to the oldest and youngest families.
Ms. Barton Youssef said the manic energy of those anxious to get home gave way to a camaraderie Monday as many realized how lucky they were to have avoided the worst of a storm that killed at least one person and left hundreds of others trapped on isolated stretches of highway.
“You could feel a tangible sense of surrender almost to the fact that we’re here, we’re together, we’re warm, we have food, we’re better off than so many other people,” Ms. Barton Youssef said Tuesday.
Daniel Barnes, a maintenance worker at the one-year-old centre, said he slept two hours in his sedan on Monday night because the road to his home in Hope was too flooded for him to pass. The 17-year-old apprentice mechanic said Tuesday he was putting his two months of schooling at the University of the Fraser Valley to good use by driving a small track loader around and trying to stop the floodwaters from entering the property.
Mr. Barnes chuckled when asked to assess the situation and prospects of the motorists driving out along a highway any time soon.
“Highway 3 has a bridge missing, Highway 1 has a chunk of it missing and Abbotsford is flooded over. I think we’re pretty stuck here,” he said. “I made someone laugh for five minutes yesterday just talking about the highways.”
Over the past two days, Mr. Miller estimated his centre has helped 600 or so people, as he and others worked through the night to make sure the kitchen was in good shape and that bathrooms and showers were clean. On Monday night, he personally cooked up pasta and garlic bread for dozens of people at the restaurant.
He says he wished the provincial government provided better timelines for the reopening of highways so that he could better ration what food he has left. Mr. Miller estimated he can supply a couple more days of meals, but they will all be customized based on his inventory.
“We’re on an island right now with water all around us and can’t go in and out,” he said.
Ms. Barton Youssef said everyone appreciates the hospitality of this erstwhile way station, but she worries the high morale will start to wane as the days stretch on, meals become more meagre and the convenience store shelves remain empty.
All the pretty horses
When fast-rising waters from the swollen Nooksack River in Washington State threatened one woman’s horses in Sumas Prairie on Tuesday, three other women banded together to help get the animals to higher ground, and safety.
Since Monday, the rising, wild Nooksack had been pouring into the Sumas Prairie, a broad expanse of farmland southeast of Abbotsford. Farms had suddenly become islands. By Monday night, the entire Sumas Prairie was under evacuation order. There were fears the river might breach the dike.
The prairie lowland is dotted with dairy, berry and poultry farms. It’s also popular with horse owners. The 22-kilometre dike system, and flat, forested surrounding trails and dirt roads are ideal for riding.
The equestrian community is tight knit and supportive, says Linda Todhunter. She, Sandra Kimber and Shaundel Dodds made it to the home of Tara Roberts as soon as they heard she needed help, talking their way past several RCMP officers keeping people from entering the evacuation zone. None had met Ms. Roberts before.
Each had brought their own trailer and immediately set to work, leading two foals, a pair of donkeys, a gelding and a young mare over mud-soaked grounds and onto the waiting trailers. By then, floodwaters were lapping at Ms. Roberts’s driveway.
Horses are among the most perceptive of all domestic animals, and with waters rising all around them, they were “skittish and on edge,” and hadn’t been eating much, says Ms. Kimber, a nurse who lives on the slopes of Promontory Hill in neighbouring Chilliwack.
A young mare named Kinta was especially frightened. Her nostrils were flaring and she was snapping her jaws. Once loaded, she panicked, and spent the 15-minute drive smashing and sliding against the aluminum wall of Ms. Todhunter’s angle haul trailer.
They were headed for Chilliwack Heritage Park, a 65-acre city park with a dirt arena and enough stalls to accommodate several dozen newly evacuated horses.
Some there seemed calm, but many were upset. The horses were pacing their new stalls in strange, jerky motions, their frightened eyes casting all over the cavernous, red barn, as if they couldn’t understand why they were suddenly alone, surrounded by strange animals. A constant rumble echoed overhead – the engines of helicopters and airplanes monitoring the dike system.
On arriving at Heritage Park, Ms. Todhunter, a recently retired paralegal, unloaded a terrified foal who had been sharing the trailer with Kinta. She cradled the frightened young animal’s head to her chest. “You’re doing just fine, baby,” she whispered. The grey pony by then was leaning heavily into her.
The women tried to calm Kinta by opening the window to talk to her, but she began pushing against it, trying to climb through the tiny opening.
When they finally got her out, the chocolate brown filly came charging out backward. Sweat was pouring off her legs. Her coat was so damp it appeared black.
“The good lord said I’m going to give you a mountain,” said an aging farmer loading his two young horses into a neighbouring stall. “And he sure did.”
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