British Columbia remains in “uncharted territory” with a chain of storms set to sweep over areas of the province that are already struggling to recover from devastating flooding, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Wednesday.
Wind and rainfall warnings blanketed most of the B.C. coast and they come after about a dozen so-called atmospheric rivers have saturated land in the province since September.
Farnworth said even routine rainfall may cause already swollen rivers to rise to dangerous heights and he urged residents to prepare for evacuations and watch for updates.
“These storms are coming at a time when we’re already grappling with some of the must destructive weather we’ve ever seen,” Farnworth said.
“Although we are up to the challenge, we are working through a monumental task.”
The government is making headway on recovery since last week’s floods, he added, with supply chains stabilizing, gas shortages starting to ease and some evacuees allowed to return to their homes.
The major arterial supply route of Highway 1 through the Fraser Valley is on track to reopen Thursday, while Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. announced the first trains arrived in Vancouver from Kamloops on Wednesday carrying grain and fuel.
However, the government also acknowledged that it has heard concerns from Indigenous communities about a lack of communication in advance of the last flooding, systemic racism in the emergency response system and complicated procedures for accessing support.
“I heard we have more work to do,” Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said regarding a call with First Nations leaders Tuesday.
Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said the government is prepared to close some roads as a precaution as modellers try to predict where and when flooding and mudslides might occur.
The wind and rainfall warnings come as the number of people confirmed killed or missing in the floods rose to six, with the RCMP saying officers are investigating a report of a missing woman who was unable to leave a home on Highway 8 before it was washed away last week. Four bodies have been recovered from a mudslide along Highway 99 near Lillooet and one man is still missing.
The centre that monitors the province’s waterways said several atmospheric rivers will drench B.C., dropping up to 70 millimetres of rain over the Fraser Valley, including Abbotsford, by Thursday and even more over Vancouver’s North Shore mountains.
The statement from the River Forecast Centre said another storm will arrive Saturday and “additional storms are expected early next week,” although the amount and severity of rainfall is still being determined.
The centre issued high streamflow advisories for waterways along the entire length of B.C.’s coast and was maintaining a flood warning for the Sumas River and Sumas Prairie around Abbotsford. It said rivers were expected to rise on Thursday with the potentially highest flows expected around the Sunshine Coast, Howe Sound and North Shore corridor.
Rivers in the Fraser Valley could rise by amounts similar to typical fall storms but could be “more problematic due to flood response and recovery efforts and damaged infrastructure in the region,” it said.
BC Hydro warned of potential power outages and said in a statement that teams were releasing water from some reservoirs, which were already full, in anticipation of more rainfall.
More than 258,000 people lost power during last week’s storms.
Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. said the first trains arrived in Vancouver from Kamloops on Wednesday after operations on the line resumed Tuesday.
Thirty locations across CP’s Thompson and Cascade subdivisions were damaged, 20 of them significantly. Hundreds of staff and contractors have been working “day and night” to restore the rail line, the company said in a statement.
“This route is CP’s busiest corridor handling a wide range of products and commodities. It links the Port of Vancouver and B.C. to the rest of Canada and North America,” the statement says.
Farnworth said Tuesday that more than 6,500 people had registered as evacuees and those whose homes were flooded last week are eligible for a $2,000 grant through the Canadian Red Cross and the province.
On Wednesday, he added a new contact centre line has also been established to provide emergency support and information about financial aid, road conditions and more.
Local communities also braced for the storms, with communities like View Royal setting up self-serve sandbag stations at a local park.
In Abbotsford, where floods destroyed agricultural land and killed livestock, the mayor said officials are doing everything they can to prepare.
Repairs to the main dike breach were nearly 90 per cent complete, Mayor Henry Braun said Wednesday, and nearly a metre of extra height was on track to be added before the first storm hits Thursday.
The city issued a do not use water advisory for all of Sumas Prairie due to inaccessible water main breaches and potentially toxic material in the flood waters.
While the dike repairs were essential in sealing off the flow of water, work is still underway to pump the remaining water out and complete safety assessments before allowing full access to the area, Braun said.
The focus at the moment is on the oncoming storms, he added.
“We are as ready as we can be,” Braun said.
Amy Smart/The Canadian Press