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A collapsed section of a bridge sits in the water after severe flooding and landslides on the Coquihalla Highway south of Merritt, B.C., as seen in an aerial view from a Canadian Forces reconnaissance flight on Nov. 22, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbians got a sobering assessment Thursday of the immensity of the repairs needed to the Coquihalla Highway as the province’s Transportation Minister explained it will be two months before the crucially important artery allows a slow stream of trucks to return.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming told reporters at a flood briefing that the Coquihalla, a popular shortcut connecting Vancouver with Kamloops that was built for a billion dollars in the 1980s, suffered heavy damage when last week’s atmospheric river delivered a month’s worth of rain onto Southern B.C. within two days.

Roughly 20 sites along 130 kilometres of the highway were damaged or washed away, including five bridges where spans completely collapsed or were almost demolished, he said.

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“This is going to be a daunting task to get that highway back to being fully operational, but I’m pleased to report that the work has begun,” Mr. Fleming said. He didn’t have an estimate for the repair costs.

Despite the need to demolish and replace a number of bridges with temporary structures, the minister said the province is “reasonably optimistic” that all repairs can be completed by late January so that commercial traffic can once again flow through the Coast Mountains. But the minister noted the plan could be derailed by more extreme weather, and even when it does reopen there will be two long stretches where trucks will have to slow down and alternate driving in one direction on a single lane.

Mr. Fleming gave his highway update as a fresh series of storms began sweeping across B.C. on Thursday.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the storm Thursday was the first of three rainfall events over the next few days, with the largest storm forecast to hit the southern part of the province Tuesday.

Routine rainfall may cause already swollen rivers to rise to dangerous heights, and he urged residents to prepare for evacuations and watch for updates.

“These storms are coming at a time when we’re already grappling with some of the most destructive weather we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Farnworth said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to tour Abbotsford on Friday and meet with provincial, municipal and First Nation leaders as well as the soldiers, first responders and volunteers that have helped the agricultural community hit hard by flooding. He is then scheduled to fly to Victoria to meet with Premier John Horgan later in the day.

Meanwhile, the provincial government says the section of the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) between Abbotsford and Chilliwack has been cleared to reopen and that it will connect the Lower Mainland to the Interior through the southern Highway 3 as major road routes continue to be rebuilt from last week’s floods.

This newly reopened section is not subject to an essential-travel order, but the government is asking people to stay off Highway 1 through Abbotsford unless travel is necessary, adding that reduced speed limits will be in effect, so drivers can expect slow traffic.

Last week’s storm has also kept the Trans-Canada closed an hour’s drive north of Hope, where it runs parallel to the Coquihalla, only further west. The government said there is no timetable for that stretch to reopen as assessments of the destruction are continuing.

Jeremy G. Venditti, a professor and director of environmental science at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, toured the length of the Fraser Canyon by air last Friday as part of his research into how the 2019 Big Bar landslide has affected salmon migration.

He and his team counted 15 recent landslides that damaged rail lines or the Trans-Canada. That is considerably more than the one or two each year that normally hit this deep fissure that was carved by the Fraser River, he said.

“The two things that surprised me were the extent of it – that huge cluster of damage that happened in the northern part of the canyon – and then the size of some of those cuts,” Dr. Venditti said.

Despite these two crucial highways into the Interior remaining closed, B.C. has made headway on recovery efforts, with supply chains stabilizing, gas shortages starting to ease and some evacuees allowed to return to their homes in Merritt and Princeton. Canadian Pacific Railway announced its first trains have arrived in Vancouver from Kamloops carrying grain and fuel.

Ottawa and the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority have also announced they are working together to address supply-chain disruptions. A statement from the federal ministers of transport and emergency preparedness says the government is contributing up to $4.1-million to ease bottlenecks at Vancouver ports caused when all rail lines and roads into the Interior were severed last week.

Steven Rice, a director with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said it could be years before some residents of Spences Bridge, northwest of Merritt, can return home after flooding and a mudslide hit the area and washed out numerous parts of Highway 8.

Mr. Rice, who is also a farmer, said he and many other residents were forced to flee their properties with little more than the clothes on their backs. He said the Nicola River, which runs along flood-damaged Highway 8, has changed course and left some farms underwater.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said repairs to his community’s extensive dike system were about 95 per cent completed and will be finished before the next big rainfall on the weekend.

“We’ve done everything to get ahead,” he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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