New Brunswick

'This is pretty crazy': Flooding inundates Saint John homes and businesses

Runaway boats, flooded homes, evacuation notices and disappointed tourists all among the fallout as river water levels rise to historic levels.

As major flooding hits, Saint John residents respond with shovels, sandbags, and stiff upper lips

Friends and neighbours work to fortify a home in the South Bay area against floodwaters. Some 1,900 residents in the Saint John region were subject to a recommended evacuation notice issued Tuesday night. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Saint John is bracing for the worst flooding the region has seen in at least a decade, five days after major flooding began to inundate low-lying areas upriver in the Fredericton region.

Water levels in Saint John are expected to reach 5.5 to 5.8 metres this week,  well beyond the flood stage of 4.2 metres.

The rising water levels and road closures have prompted the city's Emergency Measures Organization to issue a recommended voluntary evacuation notice affecting 1,900 residents.

Saint John fire Chief and EMO director Kevin Clifford, said water levels will be the highest the city has seen 'in quite some time.' (Brian Chisholm / CBC)

'This is pretty crazy'

In the Saint John suburb of South Bay, Andrew Finlay left work early to answer a text message S.O.S. from a friend who needed help sandbagging his home against encroaching floodwaters.

"We are shovelling hundreds of bags of sand to try and save this house," said Finlay as he worked with 10 other men on Tuesday afternoon. 

A crew on Bay Street, outside of Saint John, filling sandbags. Such scenes have been common across the province for the past two weeks. (Julia Wright / CBC)
I think when someone puts the call out to help, generally anywhere in the Maritimes we're going to pull together and try to get it done. Put some rubber boots on and grab a shovel.- Andrew Finlay, Saint Johner

"Basically you see water has engulfed the back lawn and it's creeping up inch by inch … We're just hoping we can get the job done before it gets to the house."

From Monday night to Tuesday afternoon, friends and neighbours filled some 300 sandbags.

"We have a few hundred more to do," Finlay said. "The plan is to build it up, take a break for pizza and beer, and then keep going and get it done. As long as it takes."

Finlay said he "feels terrible" for those affected by severe flooding across the province.

"But this is where the community comes together. I think when someone puts the call out to help, generally anywhere in the Maritimes we're going to pull together and try to get it done. Put some rubber boots on and grab a shovel," he said.

Flooding Tuesday at the bottom of Bridge Street, located in the old north end of Saint John. (Julia Wright / CBC)

As of Tuesday evening, South Bay, Morna, areas past the Randolph Bridge, and Ragged Point Road past the St. Francois De Sales Church were all subject to a recommended voluntary evacuation notice.

The number of road closures is also expected to increase.

Finlay, who grew up near the water, said he's never seen the river this high.

"This is pretty crazy," he said. "But never bet against a Saint Johner."

Yacht club inundated

The Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club, at the confluence of the Kennebecasis and St. John rivers, may have some spring cleaning to do before its 120th anniversary gala in 10 days.

On Tuesday, the 1901 clubhouse was surrounded by water.

The 117-year-old Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club clubhouse surrounded by water. The club is scheduled to hold its 120th anniversary gala in less than two weeks. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The upper parking lot was covered by 12 or 18 inches of water, according to long-time member and past commodore Graeme Scott. 

"The parking lot that we use in the summer in front of the club is six or eight feet underwater," he said.

Two boats — a Betram 42 and a 55-foot power boat — stored in a low-lying area had to be quickly hauled up with a travel lift and jammed into the yard before they floated off.

Workers used a travel lift to hoist two large powerboats to higher ground on Tuesday afternoon. 'This is certainly the highest we’ve seen since 2008,’ said longtime member and former commodore Graeme Scott, 'and it’s probably going to go even higher than that.' (Julia Wright /CBC)

While the 100 or so boats at the club remained undamaged, "the building remains to be seen," Scott said.

"We've put concrete blocking on the front deck and stuff to hopefully hold it down. In 2008 we had quite a bit of damage: the front lawn was eroded, we had a retaining wall eaten out, and the front deck actually floated off."

The highest water levels are likely yet to come, he said.

Scott said the river may rise higher, but fortunately, the 100 or so boats at the yacht club are safe for the time being. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"The tide in the harbour is starting to ebb, so it's coming down a little, but … we'll see how high it is at 3 a.m., and then again at three or four tomorrow afternoon."

Members at the Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club, at the confluence of the Kennebecasis and St. John rivers, watch as boats stored on stands for the winter are hauled from the floodwaters to higher ground. (Julia Wright /CBC)

Irreversible falls

Saint Johners aren't the only ones exasperated by the flood conditions.

Tourists visiting the city on the Marina — the first cruise ship of the 2018 season — were baffled by the anticlimactic views at Saint John's Reversing Falls.

Elaine Thomas of Naples, Fl. was among the 1,200 passengers who arrived in the city Tuesday morning.

Tourists like Elaine Thompson, second from left, and guide Abdul Rahimi, far right, were dismayed to see Reversing Falls failing to live up to its name Tuesday because of higher-than-average water levels. (Julia Wright /CBC)

Her tour group stopped at the rapids at low tide — where guide Abdul Rahimi promised they'd return later in the day to witness the water flowing the other way.

But by 3 p.m., the swollen St. John River had overwhelmed the tide, cancelling the world-famous phenomena.

"We were told when we came back we would see it reversing, but unfortunately, because of an act of God, we're not able to see that. It's not reversing today," Thomas said.

The un-reversing falls. The flood-engorged St. John River overwhelmed the Bay of Fundy, cancelling the world-famous directional shift the water undergoes with each tidal cycle. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"This is the first time in 18 years," said Rahimi. "Never seen it like this. We were expecting the river to go the other way, but nature is out of our control. "

Thomas took her disappointment in stride, calling Saint John a "lovely city" and acknowledging that in the digital age, she might still get to see the reversal of the rapids. 

"We might look it up on YouTube to see whether it really happens," she said.

Highest in at least a decade

Over the course of the week, water levels in the Saint John region are expected to surpass both the 5.2-metre water level reached in the major 2008 flood, and the 1973 mark of 5.4 metres.

The city has opened a shelter at the Carleton Community Centre on the lower west side for displaced residents. Residents in southern regions can begin making arrangements with the Canadian Red Cross.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a masters degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at julia.wright@cbc.ca.

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