Devastation continues to mount in rain- and flood-stricken southwestern B.C.
Repairing some of the more seriously damaged infrastructure will take time, civil engineering expert says
UPDATE — Nov. 17, 2021: Almost 200 rescued from Abbotsford flooding as B.C. considers state of emergency
One person is confirmed dead and the toll of damage and destruction continues to escalate as the torrential rain that fell across southwestern British Columbia over the weekend and into Monday subsided on Tuesday.
It was an "atmospheric river" event that brought heavy downpours and triggered flooding and landslides, leading to the evacuation of the entire city of Merritt, as well as further evacuations in the Fraser Valley, the Interior and Vancouver Island.
A woman's body was recovered at the site of a mudslide that swept across Highway 99 near Lillooet on Monday. Police said there could be more fatalities as search and rescue efforts continue.
Evacuation orders were issued in Abbotsford and Chilliwack early Tuesday, with residents told to leave the Sumas Prairie and Yarrow neighbourhoods immediately as floodwaters continued to rise. Schools in the Fraser Valley municipalities of Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and Mission were closed Tuesday.
A significant portion of the province is currently under either flood watch or flood warning.
A flood watch means river levels are rising and may exceed their banks and flood adjacent areas. A flood warning means that's already happened.
Highways across the south of the province were also closed due to mudslides and debris flows, with parts of the Coquihalla and Trans Canada highways washing away in surging rivers. Hundreds of motorists were trapped on the roads, and many were rescued by helicopter Monday.
In Merritt, all three of the bridges across the surging Coldwater River were unpassable — one had collapsed, and the other two needed to be inspected to see if they were still structurally sound.
A civil engineering expert said repairs to some of the most seriously damaged infrastructure will take time and work on flood protection and dikes will be upcoming challenges this week.
"That will be a major emphasis to make sure damage that has occurred isn't compounded," said Jonathan Fannin, of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia.
"Then getting the roads and especially the bridges back up and going, probably with temporary structures to begin with and then more permanent works over time."
PHOTOS | Scenes of the flooding and mudslides in southern B.C.:
Spencer Coyne, the mayor of Princeton, B.C., told CBC's Heather Hiscox on Tuesday that rivers are starting to go down.
The Similkameen River didn't get as high as town officials feared it might, Coyne said, which was a positive development for the small community where 295 homes have been evacuated and another 300 are on alert.
The mayor said most evacuees are with friends and family, and he believes there are about 30 people at a local reception centre. But he noted the community is without natural gas and temperatures are expected to fall Tuesday, with flurries in the forecast.
"We're going to try to move our evacuees to Kelowna today to try to keep them warm because our … reception centre won't have heat."
WATCH | Mayor Spencer Coyne describes the situation in Princeton:
Waking up on the road
Some travellers were forced to spend a second night in their vehicles on Monday due to road closures.
Andrew Clark, a musician from Ladysmith, had been in Kelowna for the weekend to play concerts. But on the way home Sunday, he got stuck near Hope with two colleagues. He said they're part of a group that was forced to sleep in their vehicles and crowd into local restaurants and gas stations for food and services.
"Everyone's been very good humoured," he said. "Everyone knows that we are in the same boat, so that's all quite good. But I think there's a sort of general air of disappointment that we can't find out more information about what's happening down the road.
"People are a little bit worried about how many nights we might be staying here."
An airlift operation Monday rescued hundreds of people trapped by mudslides on Highway 7 near Agassiz.
The Department of National Defence told CBC News that a total of 311 people, 26 dogs and one cat were airlifted from the highway.
Jeff Kuhn, the lead pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Hope, said about 250 people were staying at the church and that there are also people staying at a local high school or in their cars.
"The community has pulled together," he said, noting that grocery stores and people in town have been sending food and water.
WATCH | Pastor Jeff Kuhn walks CBC News around Grace Baptist Church:
Kuhn said there's some hope that Highway 1 west will open later in the day, allowing some people trapped in Hope to start making their way home.
There is no clear timeline for when the province's highway network will be functional again, or when evacuation orders will be lifted for those forced to leave their homes.
Weaker weather system possible Thursday
Tuesday will see the end of the weather system bringing heavy rain to the province, according to Environment Canada meteorologist Kenneth Chan.
"On Thursday, perhaps, we'll have another weather system coming," he said.
"But this one should be much weaker and also just mostly to the Pacific Northwest, Washington state. So we won't be affected by that as much."
Snowfall warnings remained in place overnight for the Coquihalla Highway, with Environment Canada saying up to 20 centimetres of snow could fall between Hope and Merritt.
Wind speeds are still expected to be high throughout B.C. Gusts of up to 90 km/h were forecast in parts of the Fraser Valley on Monday.
On Monday afternoon, Public Safety Minister and acting Premier Mike Farnworth said conditions were in flux throughout the province.
"I would like to thank everyone who is affected for your patience, strength and for doing everything you can to stay safe," he said at a media conference.
In a statement, the federal Ministry of Public Safety said officials from the Government Operations Centre are in close contact with B.C. emergency management staff and that Ottawa is prepared to assist if necessary and if the province makes a request.
Anyone placed under evacuation order should leave the area immediately.
To find an evacuation centre close to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.
Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.
Road conditions can be checked at DriveBC.
With files from Bridgette Watson, Corey Correia and Jennifer Walter