A wide swath of British Columbia’s south coast was on flood watch Saturday as another storm system brought heavy rains to communities still recovering from devastating floods, deadly landslides and highway washouts less than two weeks ago.
The River Forecast Centre issued the flood watch advisory on Saturday morning, warning that river levels are rising, and “will approach or may exceed” their banks, creating flood risks across an area that stretches from the west coast of Vancouver Island to Abbotsford, where the Canadian Armed Forces are already deployed to help repair the levee that breached following a historic rainfall earlier this month.
Environment Canada posted rainfall warnings for the Fraser Valley, including Abbotsford, with up to 120 millimetres of rainfall expected through the weekend. A special weather statement warns that areas of the Interior, where the towns of Merritt and Princeton were evacuated due to flooding, is also again at risk of flooding and mudslides.
With heavy rainfall in the southern interior, new evacuation alerts were issued last Saturday to residents in low-lying portions of the Thompson-Nicola region near Merritt and Spences Bridge.
The B.C. Ministry of Transportation closed stretches of Highway 99 and Highway 3 on Saturday afternoon as a precaution, saying highway infrastructure is extremely vulnerable following recent storm events, with the expected rain creating an additional risk.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun told a Saturday conference that work to repair and raise the Sumas dike is nearly complete, but his primary concern is the risk of flooding on the Nooksack River just south of the U.S. border. Residents closest to the border have been asked to be ready to evacuate on short notice.
Mr. Braun said he asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep the Armed Forces on the ground in Abbotsford as the community braces for two more heavy rain systems over the next few days.
“We remain extremely concerned about the coming weather events and the impact they will have on our flood situation. The rain started this morning here in Abbotsford, and we are expecting to receive up to 120 millimeters by tomorrow morning,” he said.
“The rain, we can handle, I’m confident of that. What we can’t handle is if the Nooksack overflows.”
Early Saturday morning, a flood alert was issued for communities in Washington State along the Nooksack River. The Washington State National Guard was expected to arrive on Saturday to assist local fire districts and search and rescue teams with sandbagging and transportation of supplies.
“At this point, the Nooksack River is projected to reach moderate flood stage on Sunday, Nov. 28. Damage to levee systems from previous storms may result in greater impacts to the floodplain areas than would typically be experienced at these river levels. There is much uncertainty as a result of last week’s flood flows.” The statement said the forecast pointed to flooding of the Nooksack in Everson, a town 40 km south of the border at Abbotsford, by Sunday morning.
Rob Fleming, British Columbia’s transportation minister, said the province is watching the situation in Washington State closely. Thee Nov. 13-14 rainstorm caused the river to flood the Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford, where thousands of livestock have died and farms were inundated.
“Information that we’ve received … has indicated that the diking system along the Nooksack does have damage from last week. They’re actively working on repairs to that. We’re obviously watching that very closely,” Mr. Fleming said during a flood briefing in Victoria on Friday morning.
On Friday, Mr. Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan held a joint news conference, where they promised to match any money donated to the Red Cross to help flood victims.
Mr. Trudeau, who visited the hard-hit Vancouver suburb of Abbotsford on Friday before flying to meet Mr. Horgan in Victoria, also announced the creation of a joint committee of cabinet members that will chart the course for a recovery. Neither leader would put a dollar figure on what it could cost to rebuild, but Mr. Trudeau said Ottawa will support B.C. as needed.
“We will be here for whatever is needed,” he said. “We need to rebuild more resilient infrastructure that’s going to be able to handle hundred year storms every few years, because that seems to be the pattern we’re on.
“It’s going to be expensive, but it would be far more expensive to do less or to not do enough.”
Mr. Trudeau added he envisions that the committee’s work will eventually help guide how other communities respond to disasters exacerbated by climate change. He said the damaged critical infrastructure and flood-stricken communities need to be rebuilt in a more resilient fashion, but he would not say whether Ottawa’s funding would be contingent on these projects meeting this bar.
“We need to build for the world we’re going to have 20 years from now. And that will be woven into all of the investments we’re making,” Mr. Trudeau said.
In the Sumas Prairie, much of which remains underwater, Canada Task Force 1 (CAN-TF1) – a specialized army operations team with backgrounds in emergency response, fire suppression, hazardous materials, medical care, search and rescue and engineering – continues to conduct rapid damage assessments of properties.
Under the direction of Abbotsford’s Emergency Operations Centre, CAN-TF1 squads have been going to each property this week looking for potential hazards such as compromised structures, fallen wires and dangerous materials. The integrity of a structure’s foundation is often the biggest concern, as floodwaters can lift a home off its foundation and set it down askew.
If one of the team’s structural engineers deems a building unsafe to occupy, the team affixes a red card to the door. Damaged but occupiable structures receive a yellow card, and unaffected buildings get green. These assessments are then uploaded to an app, which provides the city an overall look at the situation. The data allowed the city to lift an evacuation order for parts of the Sumas Prairie recently.
CAN-TF1 spokesman Captain Jonathan Gormick said he wished the team could do more for residents.
“Honestly, it’s really difficult to be there and see people who may or may not be insured, whose houses are, for lack of a better term, destroyed, even if they can be repaired,” he said. “People throwing all their drywall from the lower floor into a dumpster, throwing all their possessions into a dumpster, seeing things like kids’ toys. Even if they are insured, the impact this has on a family has to be devastating.”
Compounding residents’ grief is the heartbreaking process of cleaning up, which has been complicated by the challenges of having huge amounts of waste – including sodden furniture and major appliances – when the local dump is full, and highways are blocked.
That’s when the community mobilized.
“There was nowhere to take the garbage because everywhere was closed,” said Seth O’Brien, the owner of a construction company. He said he and a few other construction buddies found a commercial site where they could store the waste, and began moving it with equipment they had available.
“So we started dumping,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien asked Pastor Cam Stuart if local people could bring their waste to the parking lot of the Arnold Community Church in Abbotsford temporarily. Pastor Stuart agreed.
Within days, the church site became a community hub. As pickup trucks pulling dump trailers, and excavators manoeuvred mountains of garbage in the back lot, locals began dropping off donations of food and beverages in the front. A couple of tables and a tent were set up; the group of volunteers received so much hot food – stacks of pizza, Chinese, Indian – that they had to tell people to stop.
Pastor Stuart said the operation eased the pressure on residents, and estimates that the group has moved an amount of garbage twice the size of the church building.
“Everyone came together with the right tools, the right guys,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re a person of faith, but this was a miracle, how this happened.”