Evacuation orders lift as flooding subsides in northern Alberta communities

Around 70 people evacuated from Lac La Biche, Alta., have begun returning home to assess the damage done by rising floodwaters.

'It’s a lot of water, the most I’ve seen in my lifetime'

As of Tuesday morning, Highway 881 remained impassable after flooding in Lac La Biche. (Lac La Biche County/Facebook)

Around 70 people evacuated from a northern Alberta hamlet following days of heavy rain have begun returning home to assess the damage done by the spring floodwaters.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued around 9 p.m. Sunday as heavy rains threatened an area immediately west of the hamlet of Lac La Biche, washing out roads, swamping basements and triggering a state of local emergency. 

An additional 30 people who were camping at Touchwood Lake and Pinehurst Lake provincial campgrounds were also evacuated — moved to higher ground by boat.

The state of local emergency in the community about 215 kilometres northeast of Edmonton was lifted on Monday. Evacuation orders were mostly rescinded by 8:30 p.m.

As of Tuesday morning, the only area that remained under a mandatory evacuation order was a stretch of road leading to the Lac La Biche wastewater treatment facility. 

Thorhild County, about 110 kilometres northeast of Edmonton — also inundated by flooding following a weekend of heavy rain — lifted its state of emergency on Monday evening.

"It's been four extremely tough years," Thorhild County Reeve Kevin Grumetza said Tuesday, referring to heavy spring run-off and rain.

Grumetza expects road damage to total around $5 million.

Clarence Paly, who has lived and farmed in the are for most of his 71 years, said flooding in the fields is as bad as he's ever seen it.

"There's going to be losses, tremendous losses," he said.

Floodwaters subsiding

In Lac La Biche County, some areas remain submerged but the rain has stopped and the floodwaters have begun to subside, said Omer Moghrabi, the county's mayor.

 "We're recovering quite well," Moghrabi said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.  "It's sunny skies and it looks like we may get two or three days of good weather and that will help us quite a bit." 

Thorhild County, also inundated by flooding following a weekend of heavy rain, lifted its state of emergency on Monday evening. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

According to Environment Canada, around 58 millimetres of rain fell in Lac La Biche between Friday night and Monday morning. 

Moghrabi said the flooding is the worst the region has seen in decades.

"For the past four or five days, we've been receiving a lot of rain — the most I've seen in my lifetime and I've been here a long time," he said.

"This mass of water came in and the main transportation was by kayak." 

Moghrabi said about 100 evacuees registered at the Bold Centre, a recreational facility in the hamlet, before they were put up in hotels.

Evacuees are not obligated to return to their homes immediately but are encouraged to register with the county and contact emergency officials if their homes are uninhabitable.

The emergency alert issued Sunday said there was potential for train tracks to wash out, which would send more than a metre of water rushing into the area.

Moghrabi said Monday the water had breached the railway tracks and flooded some basements. Large pumps were set up to drain the area into a nearby lake. 

In a statement to CBC News on Tuesday, CN said several feet of track were washed out in the flood. Crews are working to repair damaged track and assisting with pumping, excavation and general repairs in the area. Train movements are not affected at this time, company officials said. 

Some water also got into the water treatment plant but Moghrabi said the quality of drinking water was still good. The wastewater treatment plant was operating at full capacity in an attempt to prevent sewer backups, he said.

By Tuesday morning, a bridge on Nashim Drive leading to the evacuation zone had been damaged. Highways 55 and 881 were washed out and many local roads remained impassable.

Moghrabi said the county will be working with the province to repair the damage to local infrastructure. 

He's trying to look on the bright side. 

"A lot of provincial infrastructure will have to be assessed," he said. "It is a chance for some stimulus funding. 

 "It's a lot of water, the most I've seen in my lifetime, but as long as it's flowing, we'll get there eventually." 

Commute by boat 

As the floodwaters peaked on Monday, Lac La Biche pharmacist Zicki Eludin made his morning commute by boat. 

He tried to get to work at Crescent I.D.A. Drugs by conventional means but all roads to his workplace, three blocks off the downtown waterfront, were closed.

"I decided to check with the county people, the peace officers, to see if I would qualify as an essential service but they said they were under orders not to let anyone through," Eludin said. 

"I live across the bay from Lac La Biche and figured I would phone my son to ferry me across the lake and that's what happened.  

"This is a first. That is the unique thing about this situation — just about every road coming into Lac La Biche was declared closed."

Being the only pharmacist on call, he felt he couldn't take the day off. Eludin also took a boat ride home and will continue to use his son's ferry service until the roads re-open.

Even as the flooding subsided on Tuesday, washouts will mean his commute to work will involve a 45-minute detour around the lake.

With files from The Canadian Press


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