The premier of the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) has declared a state of emergency as flooding and landslides caused food shortages, left motorists stranded and cut off the west coast city of Vancouver.
John Horgan made the announcement on Wednesday after the Canadian government said it was sending the airforce to the area to assist with evacuations and support supply lines cut off by mud and rising waters triggered by torrential rain.
The state of emergency allows provincial leaders to take extreme measures such as limiting non-essential travel and using other means to restore supply routes.
Mudslides triggered by heavy rains destroyed several major roads and killed at least one person, with officials warning the death toll could rise. More rain is expected in the coming days.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on Wednesday said the military forces will also protect residents against further flooding or landslides. Military helicopters had already helped evacuate about 300 people from one highway where people were trapped in their cars overnight on Monday following two mudslides near the town of Agassiz, about 97km (60 miles) east of Vancouver.
“Torrential rains have led to terrible flooding that has disrupted the lives and taken lives of people across BC. I want people to know that the federal government has been engaging with the local authorities,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Washington.
“We’re sending resources like the Canadian Armed Forces to support people but also we’ll be there for the cleanup and the rebuilding after impacts of these extreme weather events.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force helps evacuate hundreds of motorists from a blocked road in Agassiz, British Columbia [RCAF via Reuters]
Several towns have been completely cut off and food was starting to run low in the town of Hope, 160km (100 miles) east of Vancouver.
Pastor Jeff Kuhn said a quarter of the town’s 6,000 residents were seeking shelter.
“There is not much left in the grocery stores. They just can’t restock, there is no way to get through,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, saying that although some food had been airlifted in, there was just a day’s supply left.
Closer to Vancouver in the town of Abbotsford, farmers ignored an evacuation order and desperately tried to save their animals from rising waters, in some cases tying ropes around the necks of cows and pulling them to higher ground.
“I know it’s hard for farmers to leave their livestock, but people’s lives are more important to me right now than livestock and chickens,” Mayor Henry Braun told reporters amid fears a water pumping station could fail and flood the area.
Crews spent Tuesday night sandbagging the Barrowtown pump station and the city’s fire chief told a news conference late on Tuesday that additional rescue and swift water-rescue equipment was being added, in anticipation of the need for immediate, life-saving assistance if the pumps go down.
In addition to the toll on residents, the floods have destroyed the area’s transport network.
“There’s been enormous damage to roads, to bridges, to rail lines, to water treatment centres, dykes and pumping stations. There’s a very significant impact on infrastructure,” Blair told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
The body of a woman was recovered from one of the landslides caused by the rain, while parts of several major highways have also been destroyed.
The total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for had not yet been confirmed. Investigators had received reports of two other people who were missing but added that there were concerns for the safety of motorists following a landslide on Highway 99 near the town of Lillooet.
A crew member from the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 442 Squadron leads some of more than 300 motorists stranded by mudslides to be airlifted to safety [RCAF/Reuters]
Blair said the air force will help clear supply chain routes that have been badly hit.
Canadian Pacific Rail and Canadian National Railway, the country’s two biggest rail companies, said the flooding has forced them to cut service to Vancouver, the country’s biggest port.
Vancouver’s port moves cargo worth 550 million Canadian dollars ($440m) every day, ranging from cars to containers packed with essential commodities.
The floods temporarily shut down much of the movement of wheat and canola from Canada, one of the world’s biggest grain exporters.
Although the town of Merritt, 200km (120 miles) northeast of Vancouver, with a population of about 7,100, had officially been evacuated, some people have been stranded there. Pam Velt lost her house on Monday when the river started to rise rapidly.
“One minute we were sandbagging and I looked up and we were completely surrounded in water and debris, and things from our property were floating by us. It was awful,” she told the CBC.
British Columbia’s cabinet ministers are expected to consider whether to declare a province-wide state of emergency in response to floods, washouts and landslides that cut all routes from the Lower Mainland to the Interior following the record-breaking rainfall across southern BC between Saturday and Monday.