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B.C. battles floods, mass evacuations as storm wreaks havoc

Flooding has left dozens of communities reeling across the province after massive dumps of rain swamped neighbourhoods, including the entire City of Merritt

Rising floodwaters have led to the evacuation of several communities across British Columbia, including the entire town core of Merritt and several neighbourhoods in the municipality of Abbotsford. 

By 10 a.m. Monday, the City of Merritt issued an evacuation order for over 7,000 residents after floodwaters inundated two bridges along the Coldwater River and knocked out the city's wastewater treatment plant indefinitely.

The city, which flanks the river's 200-year floodplain, said its evacuation centre was full and urged residents to seek shelter with friends and family outside of town, or at emergency centres set up in Kamloops and Kelowna. 

"Continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage backup and personal health risk," wrote the city in a bulletin.

"For your own safety, you must now leave Merritt," added Mayor Linda Brown in the release. "Please offer help to your friends, families and neighbours. Drive safely and take care of yourselves."

As of 4 p.m., no civilians will be allowed into the City of Merritt. The town's water supply has been completely contaminated to the point where even boiling it won't make it safe, warned officials.

Dozens of other communities across the province faced similar fates, including in the town of Princeton, where dozens of homes were evacuated after floodwaters swamped several structures. 

“I’ve been here all my life. We've never had a flood like this yet," said Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne.

At a press conference called Monday morning, Minister of Emergency Management Mike Farnworth said the province's first responders and rescue personnel were on the scene across an untold number of locations. 

When asked if such a storm event had ever hit such levels in the past, Farnworth couldn't answer.

"It ranks up there. Is it the largest? We don't know yet," said the minister.  

Twenty emergency response centres have been activated across the province, with centres in Kamloops and Kelowna receiving the brunt of evacuees from neighbouring communities, said Farnworth.

September and October rainfall had already surpassed normal levels by 200 per cent. Environment Canada meteorologist Armel Castellan said rain over the past 48 hours has exceeded entire monthly rainfall averages in several locations across the province, "which is saying a lot," he added, "considering November is our wettest month."

On Sunday, the City of Abbotsford broke its all-time rainfall record after over 100 millimetres of rain fell in a single day. By 10 a.m. Monday, much of the region lay under a blanket of water, triggering an evacuation order for the Straiton area and the closure of over two dozen roads. Another five neighbourhoods remain on evacuation alert due to flooding and mudslides. 

Flood warnings have been issued for the North Shore Mountains, Howe Sound and the Sea-to-Sky corridor after the Stawamas River along Highway 99 threatened to overflow its banks. 

Dozens of highways have been closed across the province as mud and landslides, rock slides and flooding disrupted transportation across Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley and the Interior. That includes Highway 1 in the Fraser Valley, which will be shut in both directions as of 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15.

For the most updated information, monitor DriveBC's social media channels. Provincial authorities warn motorists not to travel unless absolutely necessary. Overnight temperatures are expected to drop "like a flash freeze," warned Castellan. 

MILITARY HELICOPTERS LAUNCH EVACUATIONS

At one stretch of Highway 7 near Agassiz, up to 275 people — including about 50 children — were trapped in their vehicles overnight after two landslides pinned a line of cars between a hillside and the Fraser River, according to a joint release from the City of Vancouver and the city's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team Canada Task Force 1.

By Monday at 4 p.m., rescuers were still working to remove the trapped motorists, though continued poor weather conditions have hampered their efforts, said Farnworth.

“Progress has been made so many people have been rescued by helicopters from mudslides near Agassiz and Hope with crews working to rescue the remaining people in the next few hours,” says Farnworth. "We hear you, and we know it's difficult, but help is on the way."

Chelsea Bennett, who was among the people still trapped Monday morning, said she was awake the whole night worried another slide would carry the vehicles into the river.

“That slide happened really really quickly," she said. "(It) happened 10 minutes after we passed by it. We are just really grateful that we weren’t caught in either one of them."

Others were not so lucky. Bennett says several cars were swept off the road by mud and debris as the hillside gave way. She says they were able to climb to safety and sought refuge overnight in one of the other vehicles.

By late afternoon, the Canadian Armed Forces deployed a Cormorant rescue helicopter out its base in Comox. It landed on the highway amid debris and began evacuating the stranded motorists. 

“Oh it’s amazing,” says Bennett. “They’ve got food and blankets for us—and real bathrooms!”

As of Monday even, a separate mudslide on Highway 7 at Haig had trapped more vehicles, although it was unclear at publication how many people were stranded.

STRONG WINDS CONTINUE HAVOC

Environment Canada's Castellan said late Monday the front has "mostly passed through" on the South Coast. However, he warned winds remained strong along the coast, gusting up to 90 kilometres per hour across southern Vancouver Island and the South Coast, including Metro Vancouver. The saturated ground has created prime conditions for winds to uproot trees. By Monday afternoon, thousands of British Columbians remained in the dark due to power outages, and in Metro Vancouver, wastewater overflows were reported in at least 19 locations.

"Potential power outages are likely with this secondary pulse in the afternoon and early evening," said Castellan.

In Vancouver, heavy winds flooded the sea wall around Stanley Park, and at Sunset Beach, the Canadian Coast Guard was deployed after a rogue barge broke from its moorings and struck the rocks.

With files from Brendan Kergin and Chelsea Powrie