Entire city of Merritt, B.C., ordered to evacuate after flooding of wastewater treatment plant

·4 min read
Flooding in Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. The entire population of around 7,000 has been ordered to evacuate the city, located about 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.  (Submitted by Bailee Allen - image credit)
Flooding in Merritt, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. The entire population of around 7,000 has been ordered to evacuate the city, located about 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. (Submitted by Bailee Allen - image credit)

The entire city of Merritt, population 7,000, is under an evacuation order after flooding caused the complete failure of the municipality's wastewater treatment plant leading to what city officials are calling an "immediate danger to public health and safety."

"Continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage back-up and personal health risk," reads the order issued by the city at 10:05 a.m. PT Monday.

"The wastewater treatment plant is inundated and non-operational and will be for an indefinite period of time," said the order, which asked residents to try to make plans to stay with friends or family outside the community, which is located in B.C.'s southern Interior, around 200 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

Those without that option are being told to go to either Kamloops or Kelowna, where emergency evacuation centres have been set up. Merritt residents with odd-numbered addresses are being asked to head to Kamloops, while residents with even-numbered addresses are asked to go to Kelowna.

submitted by Bailee Allen
submitted by Bailee Allen

An assembly point has been set up at Merritt's Nicola Valley Memorial Arena, where those who have mobility issues or who don't have access to a vehicle can access bus evacuation services or alternate transportation. Gas stations have been asked to remain open for now.

Monday afternoon, the official announced the city's water system was being shut down due to contamination.

"The water is undrinkable, even if boiled. We strongly urge residents not to consume any water," read the alert.

Merritt resident Nic Beers says he awoke to emergency sirens at about 4 a.m. PT.

The 64-year-old lives in the west end of Merritt, which he said is most susceptible to flooding. By 11 a.m. PT he said he had "about two feet of water flowing through my yard."

'Disaster of epic proportions'

"My basement is filling up, both of my son's places are flooded out," he said. "It's a disaster of epic proportions."

Beers is part of a group of residents who have, in the past, urged the city to take flood mitigation measures in the Nicola Valley. He says the current situation began with what was likely the greatest accumulation of rain in his lifetime in the high country above the community.

"It's definitely a once in a lifetime thing," Beers said.

Submitted by Bailee Allen
Submitted by Bailee Allen

"It's just a complete freak storm. I've seen high water here before and I've seen this end of town flood before, but nothing like we're seeing today."

Beers said he was hoping he could ride the flood out at home. His wife and grandchildren had left to take shelter at a relative's home.

"I'm staying here just to see if there's anything I can do," he said. "But really, there's nothing a person can do."

Water use may cause contamination, officials warn

The evacuation order was issued two hours after city officials put out an alert asking citizens to immediately stop using water or flushing toilets due to flooding from the ongoing rainstorm in southwest B.C., which had overwhelmed the city's public works yard where the wastewater plant is located.

"How do you run a city when no one can go to the bathroom?" said Greg Lowis, Merritt information officer.

Submitted by Bailee Allen
Submitted by Bailee Allen

"If anyone flushes a toilet or has a shower that does anything in Merritt, that water has nowhere to go. We have no treatment capacity, it will simply back up in the system."

Lowis said it was too early to tell if any sewage had escaped and caused contamination outside of the treatment system.

"Obviously, if anyone does continue to use normal bathroom facilities now with that system having failed, [contamination] will be a consequence," he said.

The City of Merritt issued the "don't flush" alert at 8:20 a.m. PT.

Lowis said officials were projecting water levels in the Coldwater River, which runs through the city, to peak sometime in the late morning.

"We believe there is still more water to come our way," he said.

Mayor Linda Brown said Merritt citizens should help each other to leave town as soon as possible.

"At this time, we need everyone to proceed in a calm and orderly manner to safe locations in nearby cities. For your own safety, you must now leave Merritt, for the time being," she said.

The local health authority, Interior Health, said it would be evacuating care home residents in the area, and all patients in the Nicola Valley Hospital.

"Anyone who requires emergency care should call 911 or visit the emergency department at the Kelowna General Hospital or the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops," a spokesperson said in a statement.

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