Evacuation orders lifted for Brantford, Ont., after ice jam releases downriver

The mayor of Brantford, Ont., lifted the evacuation order covering homes in flooded areas of the southern Ontario city late Thursday.

'Like nothing we've ever seen before,' Mayor Chris Friel says

Late Thursday, Brantford officials told residents they could return to their homes but left a state of emergency in place until all of them have safely returned with utilities restored. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The mayor in Brantford, Ont., lifted evacuation orders issued for neighbourhoods surrounding the Grand River after ice jam near the city Thursday afternoon released and allowed water levels to recede.

Officials said people could return to their homes, but warned some may not have utility service right away. Brantford Power will be working to restore electricity service Thursday evening, while natural gas service may not be restored for more than 2,000 households until Friday. The city also reopened bridges that had been closed.

The ice jam event came on suddenly and was a "unique experience" for a city that sees flooding every spring and fall."The Grand River is a flooding river; we're used to it," Brantford Mayor Chris Friel said. "We're not used to what we just saw."

"In a lot of these situations, even if you are not a person of God, you start praying because you just don't know what else to do at that point," he said. "We are and were at the whims of what the Grand River wanted to do."

Brantford Mayor Chris Friel addressed reporters twice Thursday as river and flooding conditions changed rapidly. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The city left the state of emergency, which was declared Wednesday morning, in place until residents have all returned to their homes with utility service restored.

Ice jam releases

Around 2 p.m. ET Thursday, the ice jam in Brantford began to release and leave the area, allowing water levels to recede from seven metres on Wednesday to 4.2 metres on Thursday afternoon, according to the Grand River Conservation Authority.

Schools will remain closed Friday.

More information about closures and utilities was posted on the city's website. The Woodman Park Community Centre will remain open.

Friel said several homes had sustained significant damage.

Friel said the city is working to co-ordinate many offers of volunteer help.  

Earlier Thursday, water levels in the Grand River have receded from Wednesday's peak, but still remained high. Crews had roped off sections of the city near the river.

Rob Demers came down to the water's edge by the Lorne Bridge to see the water's flow for himself. He said the situation is a stark reminder of nature's power.

City workers stand near the Grand River, where ice is overflowing and causing flooding around Brantford. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"It's something that should be respected, and it's a reminder of just how powerful nature can be," he said. ​"It's scary, and hopefully people just stay away from it, and stay safe."

Nearly 5,000 people in 2,200 homes had been told to leave neighbourhoods surrounding the Grand River, after mild weather including heavy rain dislodged an ice jam near the city Wednesday morning. About 40 people who were forced out of their homes spent the night at the Woodman Park Community Centre.

Ice overflows from the Grand River in Brantford. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

State of emergency in Cayuga

The authority warned the ice jam breakup could send a heavy flow of ice and debris down the river. That could affect places like Cayuga and Six Nations.

Drone video footage shot by Jared Houliston shows rushing water meeting an ice jam on the Grand River in Brantford, Ont. 1:53

Friel stressed people should stay away from the river and said he was shocked at how many people were bringing kids to view the floods and damage.

"This is not a family event," he said.

Reports of flooding after the warm temperatures earlier this week stretched across southern Ontario, including London, Waterloo, Cambridge, Dunnville, St. Marys, Chatham-Kent and Orangeville.

Parts of Brantford have been evacuated because of the overflowing river. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Officials said ice was blocking water and forcing the heavier flows to find ways around the jams.

In Six Nations, the elected council called a state of emergency late Wednesday afternoon.

Residents along 744 West to Bateman Line were most vulnerable, the council said. 

As of mid-afternoon Thursday, Six Nations council said water levels were receding. At that point, six residents had been forced to leave their homes as the Grand overflowed its banks in the community.

But the council also reminded residents to pay close attention to the conditions as the ice jams up-river may release, resulting in a rapid increase of water flow and debris.

Lynda Powless, owner of Turtle Island News at the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations, told CBC News that she has never seen flooding like this before in the area.

"Not to this extent," Powless said. "This one took everybody by surprise. Normally, we see this kind of flooding in the spring. With the problem in Cambridge, the breakage there, it kind of put everybody on alert."

Six Nations fire officials also closed roads: Fourth Line from Seneca Road to Bateman Line, and Mohawk Road to Third Line. The council is monitoring water levels around the Chiefswood Bridge.