Prime minister tours flood zones as B.C. officials warn more storms are coming

·7 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surveys the damage left behind from the flood waters in Abbotsford, B.C., on Friday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surveys the damage left behind from the flood waters in Abbotsford, B.C., on Friday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press - image credit)

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  • Three major highways will be partially shut down on Saturday as a precaution, the province said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in British Columbia for his first visit since record-breaking rainfall caused widespread flooding and mudslides in the province — and just as more storms are forecast to hit this weekend.

The prime minister is touring the city of Abbotsford in the Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver, which has been particularly hit hard by the floods.

While Trudeau surveys the damage, provincial officials are stressing the need for British Columbians to prepare for more possible flooding with two storms expected to hit the South Coast in the coming days.

The first of three storms in the forecast arrived on Thursday, with another expected early Saturday and the most intense and final storm to hit land on Tuesday.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The province said it will be closing "vulnerable" sections of three major highways on Saturday as a precaution:

  • Highway 3 between Hope and Princeton.

  • Highway 99 between Pemberton and Lillooet.

  • Highway 1 in the Fraser Canyon.

The exact time of the closures and how long they last "will depend on the weather" according to a statement.

"The highway infrastructure in these areas is extremely vulnerable following recent storms, and more heavy rain in the forecast poses an additional risk," the statement said.

B.C. Transportation Minister Rob Fleming on Friday asked people to stay off the roads if they can, to give essential vehicles priority, and to make sure they have emergency supplies in their vehicles if they must travel.

Highways connecting the Lower Mainland to the rest of B.C. are still severely impacted by flooding, landslides and in some cases, complete washouts.

Trudeau in the Fraser Valley

Trudeau was scheduled Friday to speak with volunteers and first responders in the Fraser Valley, along with Matsqui First Nation Chief Alice McKay, Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, and local residents affected by the floods.

Earlier Friday, Braun said the flood zone stayed stable overnight as the Barrowtown Pump Station kept pace with the additional 50 millimetres of rain but said the city is still "very concerned" about the upcoming weather.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The mayor said up to 220 millimetres of rain are expected in the city over the coming five days — 90 to 120 millimetres from Saturday to Sunday, then another 50 to 100 millimetres from Tuesday to Wednesday.

"Part of our challenge in planning for the next few days is that any additional rain we receive will be introduced into an existing flood area where waters are already high," he told reporters during a news conference.

"The rivers surrounding the Sumas Prairie and the ground [are] super saturated. This is a situation we have never faced before."

Hundreds have yet to return home

The initial storm last week brought 180 millimetres of rain, but in a shorter amount of time. Since then, repairs to the main Sumas dike have been completed.

Hundreds of residents in the region, many of them ranchers and farmers, are still out of their homes because of the extensive damage.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said Friday farmers should take all precautions in the coming days to protect animals and property and that her ministry is there to support them.

She said farmers in need can reach out to her via social media or speak to someone immediately by calling AgriService B.C. at 1-888-221-7141.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The Sumas Prairie region east of Abbotsford, which is home to numerous farms and livestock, remains under an evacuation order and a do-not-consume water advisory.

Fleming said seeing some of the damage will give the prime minister a greater understanding of B.C.'s bad condition.

"Seeing is believing," said Fleming.

After seeing the Fraser Valley, Trudeau is to meet with Premier John Horgan and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth and provide updates on federal aid.

Wicked weather in the wings

On Friday, David Campbell, head of the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said there might be more flooding in the region in the coming days if the Nooksack River in Washington state breaches its banks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. issued a flood watch alert for the Nooksack on Thursday night, noting that heavy rains could force "sharp rises on the river with flooding possible."

Campbell also said there has been some snowfall at higher elevations since yesterday that could also contribute to flooding if it melts. He said the third, and most intense storm, is coming from the far side of the Pacific and will bring warmer temperatures.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Farnworth told a news conference on Thursday that residents in flood-prone areas of the province should be prepared for more evacuations as more storms roll in.

Evacuation alerts along the Similkameen River and Tulameen River are already in place.

According to CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, rain will be heaviest Sunday and there is potential for river flows on the South Coast to reach 10- to 50-year levels or higher Sunday or Monday.

Dikes holding so far

Chilliwack Mayor Ken Popove, speaking Friday morning on The Early Edition, said he is "optimistic, but a little on edge," after weathering Thursday's storm and staring down the barrel of another two.

The community of Yarrow in Chilliwack was hit hard when the Nooksack River flooded properties on both sides of the border.

So far, said Popove, repaired pumps and dikes appear to be holding and he said U.S. officials are "confident" the Nooksack will not breach its dikes in the coming days.

"I think we'll be OK," said the mayor, adding the coming rain doesn't help the situation but he is keeping a positive outlook — for now.

Oliver Walters/CBC
Oliver Walters/CBC

Saturday's storm is forecast to bring up to 60 millimetres of rain to areas away from the coast, and up to 120 millimetres of rain near the mountains, according to a special weather statement issued by Environment Canada.

The B.C. River Forecast Centre has issued a flood watch advisory for the South Coast. A flood warning has been issued for the Sumas Prairie and surrounding area.

Farnworth said crews have inspected 250 culverts across the province in advance of the coming storms, and emergency workers have also arrived from Alberta to help.

Highway 1 reopens

Highway 1 reopened Thursday afternoon, reconnecting the Fraser Valley with Metro Vancouver to the west and the province's Interior to the east.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said there will be speed limits on the route, but the highway is open for all transportation, including non-essential travel.

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

Fleming also provided an update on another key route severely damaged by floods: the Coquihalla Highway, a section of Highway 5 that connects the Fraser Valley with the B.C. Interior.

The Coquihalla may reopen to commercial traffic in two months' time, Fleming said, but some sections will have reduced speeds and only one lane in each direction will be open.

Rebuilding will also depend on weather conditions in the coming months.

More than 100 kilometres of Highway 5 were damaged and washed out by mudslides, Fleming said, and numerous bridges were destroyed.

Highway 3 had re-opened between Hope and Princeton Tuesday. On Friday, Fleming said an accident had temporarily closed that route west of Princeton.

Damage to First Nation

The floods and slides have also affected First Nations, including the Shackan Indian Band. The community is situated along Highway 8, parts of which were severely damaged.

Chief Arnold (Arnie) Lampreau said telephone lines were ripped from poles and heavy steel bridges "tossed like toothpicks," in the flooding, while some homes had been swallowed by water and "erased" by the river.

Lampreau said he's worried elders in his community might never be able to return to their ancestral homes.

He also said that nearly two weeks after floods ravaged the region, no one from the provincial government has connected with him.

"I've told Emergency Management B.C. to pound sand because they didn't look after our people — we fell through the cracks," he said.

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