Merritt evacuees arrive in Kamloops, shocked and worried about what they left behind

·7 min read

Shock and uncertainty accompanied evacuees from the flooded City of Merritt who arrived in droves to an emergency reception centre on McArthur Island in Kamloops.

Families, elderly couples, parents pushing strollers and a few pets could be seen lining up at about noon on Monday, Nov. 15, outside the McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre that has been set up as an emergency reception centre for evacuees. Some residents emerged with manilla envelops and instructions to wait for a call from emergency social services (ESS) with a hotel placement. There were about 30 people at the reception centre at noon, with a lineup streaming out the front door.

The entire City of Merritt, with about 7,000 people, was evacuated on Monday morning due to rising flood waters that had compromised the city’s water and wastewater-treatment system.

Katrina Bennett was in disbelief when she heard on the radio at about 7 a.m. that her neighbourhood was being evacuated. She and her two teenage sons were already packing when firefighters banged on her door in the Collettville neighbourhood, telling them to leave.

She said her home was untouched by flood waters, as it’s on a hill, but noted it was a sad scene when she got onto Houston Street to leave the neighbourhood.

“We looked to the left and the river had overflowed into the mill area … but the saddest park to me was when we were travelling just over the bridge and you could see Riverside Trailer Park. There was water everywhere,” Bennett said.

Danaya Bagnall-Neil is one of the residents who escaped the flooded Riverside Trailer Park. She lives with her family — four adults, three cats and a baby — and said some houses in the park were completely flooded, as were parts of the downtown.

“I thought we were all going to die,” Bagnall-Neil said. “The water was coming up over the embankment right behind us.”

She said people in the park were scrambling when water breached the embankment.

“There were people running around outside and yelling, our neighbours were freaking out, fire department was everywhere,” she said. “You could see everyone running around their yards trying to throw stuff so it didn’t float away. It’s pretty crazy.”

Bagnall-Neil said the Coldwater River breached its banks at about 4 a.m. impacting all the trailers in the park, following about three days of constant, pouring rain.

She said the whole neighbourhood had been monitoring the water level. By 1 a.m. on Monday, Bagnall-Neil said the river was about 16 inches from breaching the embankment. By 2 a.m. there was an order to evacuate from the city.

“The river, I’ve never seen it this high, have never seen it this fast,” said Bagnall-Neil, who has lived in Merritt her entire life. “Just a few months ago, we were dying of heat … and now we’re drowning.”

Bill Clark, a single dad who lives next to the Double D Inn on Nicola Avenue, could be found in the ESS lineup on Monday with his three young children.

He told KTW their home wasn’t impacted by flood waters when they were evacuated this morning, but he noted it is beside the river and he isn’t sure what may come of the situation.

He said he has no one with whom he and his 10-year-old and two 11-year-old children can stay in Kamloops, which is his primary concern.

“I’m more worried where are we going to be staying,” Clark said, opening his wallet to show he has no money on him. He was hoping to find answers inside the reception centre.

Roy Coutlee, who lives on Voght Street, said he woke up to water in the streets and nearly in his home.

“There was garbage cans, firewood, everything floating down there,” Coutlee said.

He said he wasn’t nervous, noting his sole thought was to get his mother out of the area. He flagged down a police car to have officers help him get his 80-year-old mom out of the house.

Natasha West, Kaelan Smith and Evelyn Cahoose, from the DiamondVale area of Merritt, could be found embracing as they stood in line on McArthur Island.

Smith said it was hard to sleep the night before, knowing they might have to evacuate, and got only about two hours of shut-eye.

Cahoose said she woke up to an abundance rain after a sleepless night. Part of Merritt, she said, looked like a river and she saw a car halfway under the water.

Bobbie Labelle said her husband called her after he left their Collettville home, to alert her to the flood.

“My husband calls me at quarter after five and says, ‘You ain’t taking this route to work this morning because the streets are flooded out, garbage cans are floating around and [there’s] a kid jumping on a trampoline,’” Labelle said with a laugh.

She said she was surprised as she wasn’t expecting a flood in November.

In Kamloops outside the emergency reception centre, Coutlee said he has a hotel room for the next 72 hours through ESS, but he’s more concerned about long-term lodging for himself and his mother.

“Where are we going to live after this?” Coutlee asked, noting renting is expensive.

He said he has no idea what he will do now.

“Just go day by day. See what happens,” he said.

Cahoose, who lives on Menzies Street, said her home wasn’t impacted by flooding, but she decided to evacuate before the order was issued because there is no access to fresh water.

“I want to go back to something, I don’t want to go back to nothing,” Cahoose said.

Bagnall-Neil said a lot of people in Merritt seemed scared. She and her family were directed to Kamloops from their initial muster point at the Nicola Valley Memorial Arena, which was packed with people. She said her family has a hotel to stay in for now, but she is not sure when or if they’ll ever be allowed to return home. She said their trailer is raised off the ground and has a couple inches of clearance, but noted a neighbour’s home was submerged.

“The water is right now underneath our house. We don’t know if it’s in our house and we don’t know if it’s come up through the bottom,” Bagnall-Neil said.

Bennett said she was feeling “a lot of anxiety” about leaving her home, but found comfort in prayer and support from friends and family and remains hopeful her home will remain untouched by floodwaters as it is on a hill.

“Do step one — get out. Then step two — just take it one step at a time,” Bennett said, noting she got her electronics, toiletries, medicine and clothes together in the rush to pack.

Her sons were worried as well, but they are helping to keep their mother calm, Bennett said.

The evacuation of the city feels surreal for Bennett as it disrupts life. Her son had a shift at a local grocery store which he obviously won’t be attending — and while Bennett had the day off herself, she figures she won’t be working this week.

“It took me about four or five phone calls [with friends and family] to say, ‘Is this really happening?’” Bennett said.

Labelle had a positive attitude about her situation. Asked what she thought when firefighters came to her door and told her to evacuate, she said she thought, “I get a day off.” She said her daughter, Seriena, 10, was excited to have a day off school.

She noted Merritt was on evacuation alert for a long time this past summer during wildfire season, but the current order to leave due to flooding happened fast.

“We didn’t get any time to worry,” Labelle said.

She said she had to leave her cat behind, but doesn’t think anything bad will happen to her home, which is also on a hill in Collettville.

One thing that does concern her is the possibility of looting.

“If it happens, it happens. As long as we got each other, that’s the most important thing,” Labelle said.

Merritt residents have been asked to evacuate to reception centres in either Kamloops or Kelowna and to stay with family or friends if they can.

Residents of odd-numbered houses have been told to go to Kamloops and residents of even-numbered houses are proceeding to Kelowna.

The Kamloops emergency reception centre at the McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre, at 655 Island Parkway in North Kamloops.

The Kelowna emergency reception centre is at 1480 Sutherland Ave.

Evacuees can register online at https://ess.gov.bc.ca/. Call 1-800-585-9559 for more information.

Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week

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