Thousands remain stranded by massive floods in western Canada

Death toll linked to flooding, mudslides in British Columbia expected to rise, as search-and-rescue efforts ramp up.

Bekky Meier, a dairy farmer, talks to her husband on the phone as he works to save their farm in the flooded Sumas Prairie in the Sumas area of Abbotsford, British Columbia, on November 18, 2021 [Philip McLachlan/AFP]

About 18,000 people remain stranded by flood waters in Canada’s westernmost province, after mudslides destroyed roads, houses, bridges and other key infrastructure in what may be the country’s costliest natural disaster.

Receding floodwaters on Thursday were helping rescue efforts, but the downpour blocked off entire towns in the province of British Columbia (BC) and cut access to the largest Canadian port in Vancouver, disrupting already strained global supply chains.

The flooding comes just months after massive wildfires ravaged several BC communities after a “heat dome” brought record temperatures to the province this summer.

Those blazes may have left hills devoid of vegetation, contributing to the flooding and mudslides, while experts have warned that the climate crisis is making weather events more extreme and frequent.

Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of emergency preparedness, on Thursday said the federal government would assist BC to rebuild and restore critical infrastructure in communities affected by the floods.

Floodwaters and mudslides destroyed roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure in BC [B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure/Handout via Reuters]

“I know that there remains a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety during this very challenging time,” Blair told reporters on Thursday afternoon.

“But I want to assure all Canadians, and in particular to the people of British Columbia, that we will be there to provide support, relief, and we will work collaboratively with all levels of government to ensure that they receive the support and the essential services that they require.”

Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Abbotsford, a town about 70km (43 miles) east of Vancouver that was hard-hit by the flooding, said a huge amount of uncertainty persists, however.

“Just because the waters are receding doesn’t mean even the roads and bridges and highways are safe,” Rattansi reported. “Because of the amount of water that fell – a month’s rainfall in about two days on Sunday and Monday – and large swathes are still underwater. The economic activity in this area is severely affected.”

Earlier in the day, BC Premier John Horgan, who declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, said the death toll from the flooding, which currently stands at one, is most likely to rise.

Abbotsford officials had raised concerns that the waters would overwhelm the local pumping station and force the evacuation of all 160,000 residents.

“It’s just the worst flooding that I’ve ever seen,” resident Steve Gosselin told the AFP news agency.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the Sumas Prairie overnight as a pump station risked being overwhelmed by a surge of water carried north from the Nooksack River in the United States, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said.

Braun said on Thursday there had been no change in the status of the pumping station and that the water was receding “at a pretty good clip (rate)” in some areas – but cautioned the crisis was far from over.

“We continue to move toward the recovery phase of this emergency,” he said during a briefing, while noting that more heavy rain was forecast for next week.

“We are not out of this by a long shot yet,” said Braun, adding he had been promised help by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and many provincial ministers. “I take them all at their word. But I’ve also prepared them for one big bill at the end of this,” he added, estimating it would cost up to $792m to repair local damage.

This strongly suggests the final costs associated with the BC flooding would far exceed the $285m in insured losses linked to wildfires that hit Alberta’s oil-producing region of Fort McMurray in May 2016.

“Easily the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Won’t even be close,” tweeted University of Calgary economics professor Blake Shaffer, a specialist in climate policy.

Washout from a previously flooded area is seen near Whatcom Road in Abbotsford, British Columbia on November 18 [Philip McLachlan/AFP]

The disruption to operations at Vancouver’s port is set to exacerbate existing supply chain issues and could even make Christmas trees harder to find, farmers said.

BC Agriculture Minister Lana Popham also said thousands of farm animals have died and many more were in “difficult situations”, trapped and facing shortages of food and drinking water.

Meanwhile, Canada’s military on Thursday joined the rescue efforts, deploying a Hercules transport aircraft, several search helicopters and hundreds of troops to the region, while putting thousands more on standby.

Their activities “will include providing assistance with evacuations, transport of emergency response personnel and equipment, and area reconnaissance”, said military spokesman Alex Roy.

More than 1,000 travellers had been stranded by mudslides, rocks and debris between Sunday and Monday in the town of Hope, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) east of Vancouver.

A search, meanwhile, continues for more possible victims swept away in a mudslide near Lillooet, 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Vancouver, after a woman’s body was recovered this week. Federal police say at least four people are still missing in that mudslide.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies