Abbotsford, B.C., issues urgent appeal to evacuate Sumas Prairie citing possible catastrophic flooding

·4 min read
Flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday, Nov.16, 2021.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday, Nov.16, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

UPDATE — Nov. 17, 2021: Danger of catastrophic flooding in Abbotsford averted for now

Officials in Abbotsford, B.C., are urging residents who were told to evacuate Sumas Prairie earlier Tuesday to leave immediately saying worsening conditions pose "a significant risk to life."

At a news conference Tuesday night, city officials said a pump station is in imminent danger of failing. The Barrowtown Pump Station is the only thing keeping excess water flow from the Fraser River from entering the flooded area.

Sumas Prairie is a low-lying rural area east of Abbotsford's town centre, just over an hour's drive east of Vancouver. Most of the area is farmland and was created by draining Sumas Lake in the 1920s.

Earlier in the day, officials had issued evacuation orders in the region, but about 300 people remained. On Tuesday night, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun begged residents to leave immediately, asking them not to stay behind to protect animals.

"I know it's hard for farmers to leave their livestock. But people's lives are more important to me than chickens and livestock," Braun said.

"Please heed the evacuation order and leave, tonight. Tomorrow morning might be too late."

Braun estimated 200 properties were in the evacuation area.

City officials said the pump station had not yet been inundated by floodwaters, but all four pumps at the station were operating at full tilt.

Texts to be sent in emergency

If any of the pumps fail, water from the surging river would fill the low-lying plain and cause three metres of water to quickly cover the entire Sumas Prairie area, according to Braun.

Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr said the city was prepared to use the provincewide emergency broadcast system if the pump station fails, with text messages to be sent out to residents of Abbotsford and parts of Chilliwack.

The mayor said he has been in contact with provincial and federal officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Emergency teams are preparing to rescue residents with boats and helicopters through the night.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement late Tuesday that he too has requested federal support for Abbotsford, and for B.C. flooding in general, including the use of armed forces ground and air support.

'Changing so quickly'

Earlier Tuesday, officials in Abbotsford and Chilliwack issued evacuation orders with water levels continuing to rise in the Fraser Valley in the aftermath of extreme rain.

An expanded evacuation order was put into effect for the entire Sumas Prairie and part of Sumas First Nation in Abbotsford, while Chilliwack has issued an evacuation order for the community of Yarrow.

People who live in both areas were told to leave immediately.

"This is changing so quickly that you might think you're OK one minute and literally half an hour later you'll see the change in the water levels," said Serr.

He said emergency responders have rescued some people caught in rapidly rising flood water off the roofs of their cars.

WATCH | Abbotsford's police chief describes dangerous rescues:

The expanded evacuation zone for Sumas Prairie is bordered by Sumas Mountain, Delair Road and Old Yale Road to the north, the U.S border to the south, east to the Chilliwack city border and west to Ridge West of Railway Road.

Evacuees are asked to check in at the emergency support service reception centre at the Fraser Valley Trade and Exhibition Centre (TRADEX).

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Yarrow residents are asked to register at the reception centre set up at the Neighbourhood Learning Centre at Chilliwack Secondary School.

Due to the highway closures and limited hotel availability, evacuees are being encouraged to stay with family and friends.

Meanwhile, all schools in Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and Mission were closed Tuesday, along with all campuses of the University of the Fraser Valley.

Schools in Chilliwack will be closed again on Wednesday.

Stranded overnight

Trina Enns said she and a neighbour family with three children ended up sleeping inside the McDonald's on Whatcom Road in Abbotsford after evacuating their homes in Sumas Prairie on Monday night.

"We came into the McDonalds to use the bathroom but ended up staying overnight," she said. "Lots of people slept in their cars overnight."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Enns said the area all around the McDonald's is underwater and the restaurant's manager was arranging to bring in a boat to rescue the people stranded.

"Within five minutes the water went from one side [of the road] and flooded over to the other," she said. "Here on Whatcom Road, the puddle that's blocking us, there's three cars submerged."

The City of Abbotsford website says no injuries have been reported.

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