Soldiers assessing flood-damaged roads and bridges won't be heaving sandbags

About 60 soldiers will provide flood relief support to the New Brunswick government in response to a request from Premier Brian Gallant, the Canadian Armed Forces announced on Friday.

About 60 engineers from Base Gagetown respond to New Brunswick's request for flood relief

About 25 soldiers are already on the ground in Grand Bay-Westfield, near Saint John, and a similar number are in the Fredericton area. (Connell Smith/CBC)

About 60 soldiers will provide flood relief support to the New Brunswick government in response to a request from Premier Brian Gallant, the Canadian Armed Forces announced on Friday.

But the troops from the 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown in Oromocto won't be heaving heavy sandbags out of homeowners' yards or doing cleanup work that private companies could be hired to do.

They are army engineers who will assess the damage to roads and bridges from the unprecedented flooding in the southern part of the province, and prioritize next steps.

The soldiers will advise provincial authorities on mitigation measures and assist in planning and co-ordinating relief efforts.

"I am proud to see our members of the Canadian Armed Forces once again responding to help Canadians in their time of need," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited a flood incident command post in Oromocto late Friday afternoon, before heading out on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel to tour affected communities along the St. John River. (CBC)

The flooding, which started more than two weeks ago and reached historic levels, has forced more than 1,600 people from their homes and left devastating damage in its wake, including washed-out roads and water-covered bridges that stranded some residents.

The Trans-Canada Highway between Fredericton and Moncton was closed for more than a week but reopened Friday morning, with one lane in each direction and reduced speed limits.

Dozens of roads across the province remain closed.

Even though the waters are lower, you know that there's been tremendous flooding, [a] tremendous number of people impacted and of course the work on the cleanup is going to come in the coming weeks and months.- Justin Trudeau, prime minister

The St. John River stood at about 6.42 metres above sea level in the Fredericton area, as of 7 p.m. Flood stage is 6.5 metres.

Water levels are forecast to drop to 6.1 metres on Saturday, 5.8 metres on Sunday and 5.4 metres by Monday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Oromocto late Friday afternoon, visiting an incident command post and touring affected communities along the St. John River with the premier and area MPs.

"It was a real opportunity to see the extent of the damages," Trudeau told reporters during a brief statement after the tour on a Canadian Coast Guard vessel.

"Even though the waters are lower, you know that there's been tremendous flooding, [a] tremendous number of people impacted and of course the work on the cleanup is going to come in the coming weeks and months. It's still going to be a real issue."

The flood destroyed part of Ragged Point Road in Saint John. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

He commended emergency responders for their "extraordinary" work and praised citizens for pulling together.

Trudeau also thanked Gallant and the MPs for their hard work to respond to "the challenges people are facing."

"It's a great pleasure to be able to count on such a great team."

Gallant announced on Thursday he had asked the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct a reconnaissance mission to determine what, if any, support it could provide now that the floodwaters have started to slowly recede.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale confirmed in a tweet Thursday night that the federal government would provide support.

Gallant told reporters the agreement came with some "caveats."

"The Canadian Armed Forces personnel — and this is important, I believe, for New Brunswickers affected by the floods to know — will not engage in post-flooding damage cleanup or other such tasks that would place the Canadian Armed Forces in competition with local industry," he said during an unrelated news conference in Moncton on Friday morning.

The military will not make final determinations as to the "serviceability or safety" of civilian infrastructure either.

That responsibility rests the provincial government, said Gallant.

The soldiers will also assist humanitarian relief personnel and may transport government officials in affected areas, he said.

The military engineers in Grand Bay-Westfield on Friday stopped at locations where the pavement has been weakened by floodwaters, or the shoulders washed away, to take measurements and make notes. (CBC)

Rear-Admiral Craig Baines, commander of Joint Task Force, Atlantic, said the mission is "a bit more personal" for the team.

"They're deploying to help their neighbours, and the communities close to where they live."

Many of the members have already been volunteering their evenings and weekends to help, said Baines.

"I'm proud to say that this is simply who they are, and what they do."

About 15 members of the 4 Engineer Support Regiment mobilized Friday morning to assess the damage in Grand Bay-Westfield, near Saint John, along with commanding officer Lt.-Col. Chris Cotton.

A larger group was touring Island View, west of Fredericton.

Cotton said they are working "hand-in-hand" with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

"Clearly, their goal is to bring all the routes online and return the greater area to normalcy, or as close to normal as possible again.

"They have a limited capacity to do that and we are here to assist."

Although the soldiers are concentrating on Grand Bay-Westfield and Island View "in the coming days," they could branch out to other parts of the province, depending on provincial government's needs, said Cotton.

"It will be an ongoing and live assessment of what the military can provide," he said. "If [the footprint] needs to expand or contract will be reassessed every day.

"And if there's roles for other organizations outside ourselves, then certainly we'll be prepared to make those kind of recommendations."

The Gallant government has faced criticism from some residents and the Opposition for not calling in the military sooner.

But provincial and Emergency Measures Organization officials maintained they had the resources they needed during the flood itself.

The provincial government has created a new webpage with flood recovery and cleanup information.

With files from Connell Smith and Radio-Canada