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Abbotsford mayor worries for community as rescuers overwhelmed by flooding

Impassable highways creating havoc as rescuers try to get people to evacuation centres
Aerial view of the flooding in Abbotsford on Nov. 16, 2021. (Sue Peck/Contribued to Black Press Media)

Fast-rising water levels from a river in Washington state have overwhelmed rescuers in Abbotsford, B.C., where 1,100 homes have been evacuated, in a province where thousands of people have been forced from their homes by floods or landslides.

Mayor Henry Braun said Tuesday that impassable highways are creating havoc as police and firefighters try to get people to evacuation centres.

“We did that with the western part of Sumas Prairie yesterday and now we’ve got boots on the ground on the eastern half of Sumas Prairie. And once we have secured the safety of our residents, we will turn our minds to other things,” he said.

“It breaks my heart to see what’s going on in our city.”

Sunny skies followed two days of torrential rain that matched the typical amount over the entire month of November in the city, but the mayor said the water keeps rising and Highway 1 will be cut off for some time.

“People need to prepare that they may not be able to travel for a few days. Even then, there are washouts further up into the Interior, the Coquihalla (Highway), the (Fraser) Canyon. There’s not going to be any movement of trucks any time soon, nor trains for that matter.”

Braun said he’s worried about the livelihood of farmers in the area known for its thriving agriculture sector.

“We’re going to run out of feed in four or five days because we only have so much bin storage. The dairy industry as well. We have thousands and thousands of dairy cows on that prairie. They also need feed.”

Braun cautioned people against driving into what could be extremely deep ditches, adding he’s worried about getting enough information from officials in Washington state about water levels that have risen dramatically from the overflowing Nooksack River and over the Sumas dike.

“When are we going to crest? When is it going to level off here? It’s like a full cup of coffee. Once it’s full, it keeps flowing over the sides.”

Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr said officers encountered cars that had flipped over with people on the roofs of vehicles on Monday night but had to choose to leave some motorists in semi-trucks because they were higher above the water.

“I was out there last night. You could not see where the side of the road was. We had one member put on a life-jacket and swim out towards a car that was overturned to bring someone back. And that was on a regular basis for about two hours,” Serr said.

“We had to get out of there because our police vehicles were going to be overcome by the water,” he said. “You saw people stranded in different businesses and they just could not get out.”

The evacuations in Abbotsford add to others in various parts of B.C., including in Merritt, where the entire town of 7,000 has been forced to leave after the sanitation system failed.

Mudslides in various regions followed an “atmospheric river” that brought two days of rain that would normally fall over the entire month of November, causing flooding in the southwest and central parts of the province.

Rescue crews began searching early Tuesday for people who may have been trapped in debris from slides on Highway 7 near Agassiz after 275 people were transported out of the area by helicopter on Monday.

The extreme weather had the First Nations Leadership Council calling on the provincial government to immediately declare a state of emergency.

“The unprecedented and continuing weather events prove that this is no longer a climate crisis. We are in an ongoing climate emergency, and lives and communities are at imminent risk,” the council said in a written statement.

However, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has said Monday that local governments make their own decisions to issue evacuation alerts and orders and then ask the province for help.

More than 20 emergency centres have been activated to help house stranded travellers.

Multiple roadways have been closed because of flooding or landslides, including sections of Highway 1A, Highway 3, Highway 5, Highway 11, Highway 12 and Highway 91.

—The Canadian Press

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