Jill Oland’s house in upscale Rothesay, N.B., is dry, but her family is staying elsewhere: Her street is cut off and she doesn’t want her children crossing through potentially contaminated floodwaters.
“All the sewage pumping stations are underwater right now,” said Oland, who donned rubber boots and hip waders to traverse the knee-high floodwaters so she could retrieve some clothes.
“Anybody who’s in a flood area, if they’re using those services, there’s a chance it could backup. We just don’t want to do that. All this stuff is going right into the river right now, so we wanted to make sure we’re not adding to that.”
They left a week ago, and probably won’t return until Sunday at the earliest.
As unprecedented water levels receded markedly in parts of flood-stricken New Brunswick Wednesday, residents were being warned to treat the floodwaters and anything they may have contaminated with caution.
Emergency officials were also pleading with residents to be patient.
“We know evacuees are tired and frustrated, and they want to return to their normal routine,” said Greg MacCallum, director of the province’s Emergency Measures Organization.
“Everyone is working very hard to enable that to happen, however rushing back home has the potential to make a bad situation worse in some cases... It’s a slow and deliberate process. It won’t be one moment slower than it has to be.”
EMO warned that water should not be consumed from private wells until they have been tested, since raw sewage has fouled floodwaters that have also likely been mixed with rotting animal carcasses, fuel and other debris.
Spokesman Geoffrey Downey said anything that has come into contact with the floodwaters should be handled carefully.
“That ground is potentially contaminated, so people have to proceed with caution both for things they can see, including everything from an animal carcass or propane tank to nails and all kinds of junk,” he said.
“Just because the river’s dropping doesn’t mean it’s time to toss that kayak in or get the motor boat out or go swimming.”
Health officials said floodwaters could contain harmful bacteria, like salmonella or E. coli, and people cleaning contaminated areas should wear protective clothing.
EMO said produce – including popular fiddleheads which are harvested by many in the province – that has been exposed to floodwater may not be safe to eat and should be avoided.
Four parks had also been closed in Saint John due to possible contamination from the floodwaters, which remained above flood level in the city.
Levels in Fredericton have fallen for a second straight day, going down to 7.2 metres while Saint John levels were at 5.45 metres – a significant drop from their peak of 5.75 metres Monday.
Downey said many areas could be below flood levels by Sunday.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, weary after almost two weeks of monitoring the record-breaking flood.
Several roads in Fredericton also reopened Wednesday after being covered in water for days.
Meanwhile, RCMP in hard-hit Maugerville were looking for the driver of a vehicle that injured a man who was stationed at a barricade on Wednesday afternoon.
Police said the driver became agitated and fled, pulling the man a short distance. He was taken to hospital, but his injuries are not believed to be serious.
There were also reports of nails scattered on roadways in the community, about an hour’s drive from Fredericton.
In Rothesay – home to Irvings, Olands and other wealthy New Brunswickers – porta potties had been placed in front of stately, sandbag-lined homes in a bid to reduce the amount of raw sewage contaminating the river.
Mayor Nancy Grant called the historic floods “heartbreaking.”
“The river is the heart and soul of our town. We’re very much a river community,” said Grant.
“We use our river year-round for sailing and swimming in the summer – we have beaches – and in the winter we use it for ice fishing and skating. It’s a gathering place for the community.”
Mike Kearney, who has a cottage in Rothesay on the same street as Oland, was monitoring the floods from his home in Vancouver and decided to catch a flight back last week to help ward off floodwaters in the neighbourhood.
Kearney, who is originally from New Brunswick, said his cottage did suffer some damage, but his mother’s house on the same road was spared.
“The cottage is wet and bruised, but it’s OK. It’s got water in it. It will drain out. Because it’s a cottage it doesn’t have any drywall, it doesn’t have any insulation, It’s just wood. It will dry out,” said Kearney.
“My mother’s place stayed dry. Yesterday we were really concerned because of the wind... We probably put 5,000 sandbags out. If we hadn’t of done that, it would have been real trouble. It was a big community effort. There must have been 30-40 people helping at one point.”
Kearney noted the work is just beginning for many.
“It’s not over yet. The cleanup is going to be huge going forward,” he said as he pulled the strap of his hip waders over his shoulders.
Downey said the prolonged flood recovery will soon get underway, with some people starting to return to their waterlogged properties to clear away debris.
“For example, in Fredericton the walking trail is littered with entire logs,” he said.
The Canadian Red Cross announced it would be distributing flood cleanup kits, which include a mop, broom, scrub brush, sponges, latex gloves, masks and garbage bags.
The Trans-Canada Highway between Moncton and Fredericton remained closed, while dozens of roads in communities along the Saint John River were still shut to traffic.
Emergency officials said people should still respect closed streets, even if they appear dry. Roads may not have been inspected or need remedial work before they can be deemed safe.
More than 1,400 people had registered with the Canadian Red Cross as of Tuesday evening, indicating they had evacuated their properties.
– With Alison Auld in Halifax