Record-breaking downpours from thunderstorms cause flooding across Nova Scotia

Record-breaking downpours from thunderstorms cause flooding across Nova Scotia
People stand at the edge of floodwater as vehicles are seen abandoned in water following a major rain event in Halifax on Saturday, July 22, 2023. A long procession of intense thunderstorms have dumped record amounts of rain across a wide swath of Nova Scotia, causing flash flooding, road washouts and power outages.

An unusually long procession of intense thunderstorms dumped record amounts of rain across a wide swath of Nova Scotia on Friday and Saturday, causing flash flooding, road washouts and power outages.

Torrential downpours started Friday afternoon across the Halifax region, dumping more than 200 millimetres of rain in the Hammonds Plains, Bedford and Lower Sackville areas. The port city typically receives about 90-100 mm of rain during an average July.

Based on radar estimates and unofficial observations, Environment Canada said some areas may have received more than 300 mm in 24 hours. Radar maps show the heaviest rainfall extending along the province’s southwestern shore to a point  north of Halifax.

Widespread flooding has also been reported in Lunenberg County, which is west of the Halifax region.

As Emily Noseworthy surveyed a washed-out bridge on the Bedford Highway on Saturday afternoon, the Halifax resident said she was stranded in the suburb north of the city, unable to get to her job on the Dartmouth side of Halifax harbour.

“I’m sending them pictures,” she said, referring to her employer at the Dartmouth Crossing big-box shopping area. “I can’t move.”

On Friday night, water levels rose so fast in the Bedford area that volunteers with Halifax Search and Rescue were using small boats to rescue people from inundated homes.

In the Hammonds Plains area, northwest of the city, flooding washed out driveways and the shoulders of many roads.

That’s the same area where where 151 homes and businesses were destroyed by a wildfire that started on May 28th, forcing evacuations that affected 16,000 residents. And for much of the past week, the Halifax area has been sweltering under an immobile dome of humidity — a rare event so close to the coast.

On Twitter, one resident wryly predicted: “Locusts next week.”

And it was only last fall that post-tropical storm Fiona descended on the Atlantic region, killing three people, flattening scores of homes and knocking out power to more than 600,000 homes and businesses. Fiona was the most costly weather event in the region’s history, causing more than $800 million in insured damage.

“It’s pretty obvious that the climate is changing – from Fiona last year to the wildfires in the spring and now flooding in the summer,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in an interview.

“We’re getting storms that used to be considered one-in-50-year events … pretty regularly.”

While the official statistics have yet to be recorded, it’s believed the Halifax region has not seen this level of rainfall since Aug. 16,  1971, when hurricane Beth made landfall near the eastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia and then roared over Cape Breton. At that time, almost 250 mm of rain fell on the Halifax area, causing widespread flooding and$3.5 million in damage.

“I’m old enough to remember that one,” Savage said. “But the consistent, violent nature of the thunderstorms last night and into this morning were frightening. It’s put a lot of people in a tough position. If you’ve ever had water in your basement,  it’s not a fun situation.”

At one point, more than 70,000 Nova Scotia homes and businesses were in the dark as lightning strikes knocked out electricity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the widespread blackouts and damages at an unrelated afternoon event in Toronto, saying the federal government stands ready to provide whatever support the province and its residents may need.

“Obviously this is just a time when we’re thinking of families going through an incredibly difficult moment,” he said, noting federal officials have been in touch with their provincial counterparts. “We will be there for them while they are going through this, but also through the difficult days and weeks to come.”

Meanwhile, residents in several communities were warned to stay off the roads, including several major highways. Online maps produced by the Halifax region show more than 30 road blockages, mainly to the north and west of the city.

When Chantal Blanchard and Travis Hartley-Cox left their Halifax-area subdivision around 7 p.m. Friday to head into the city, “all hell was breaking loose,” Blanchard said, adding the water on the roads was like a “white-water rapid.”

Their return trip took two hours as they carefully dodged abandoned vehicles on washed-out roads. But they eventually reached a roadblock.

“The police officer said the road was broken right up ahead,” Blanchard said.

The pair then waded through waist-deep water, keen to get home to their three dogs.

Paula Finlayson, a 25-year resident who lives in the Hammonds Plains area, described the storm  as “awe-striking.” Surveying a washed-out bridge and overland flooding that looked more like a large lake, Finlayson said she felt claustrophobic when she realized she was trapped in her subdivision.

“It’s so crazy, it’s bizarre,” she said, looking at the water rushing beneath the crumbling bridge. “This is major.”

Rainfall warnings were still in effect Saturday for central and eastern Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton. And an additional 40 to 100 mm of rain was expected by Saturday night.

In some areas, submerged streets were littered with abandoned vehicles. Halifax RCMP said residents shouldn’t leave home unless it’s an emergency.

Scores of images shared on social media show cars plowing through deep water. And one video from the Windsor Junction area north of Halifax shows firefighters standing on the roof of their submerged pumper truck. On the normally busy Bedford Highway, a beaver was spotted Friday swimming across the submerged road.

In the Halifax area, two evacuation centres opened on Friday  night and were kept open on Saturday.

“We knew there was some pretty strong rain coming,” the mayor said, adding about 10,000 lightning strikes were recorded as the storm marched across the province. “But I don’t think any of us expected what we got from last evening through this morning.”

Marlo Glass and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

The Canadian PressThe Canadian Press

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!