VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — The Canadian Pacific coast province of British Columbia declared a state of emergency Wednesday following floods and mudslides caused by extremely heavy rainfall, and officials said they expected to find more dead.
Every major route between the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, where Canada’s third largest city of Vancouver is, and the interior of the province has been cut by washouts, flooding or landslides following record-breaking rain across southern British Columbia between Saturday and Monday. The body of a woman was recovered from one of the mudslides late Monday.
“Torrential rains have led to terrible flooding that has disrupted the lives and taken lives of people across B.C. I want people to know that the federal government has been engaging with the local authorities,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in Washington. “We’re sending resources like the Canadian Armed Forces to support people but also we’ll be there for the cleanup and the rebuilding after impacts of these extreme weather events.”
The federal government said it was sending the air force to assist with evacuations and to support supply lines.
Military helicopters already helped evacuate about 300 people from one highway where people were trapped in their cars Sunday night following a mudslide.
“We expect to confirm even more fatalities in the coming days,” British Columbia Premier John Horgan said.
Horgan called it a once in a 500 years event. He said the state of emergency will include travel restrictions so the transport of essential goods medical and emergency services will reach the communities that need them. He asked people not to hoard goods.
“These are very challenging times. I’ve been at this dais for two years now talking about challenging times we have faced — unprecedented challenges with public health, wildfires, heat domes and now debilitating floods that we have never seen before,” Horgan said.
Horgan said over the past six months there have been drought conditions in Merritt, where the river was at its lowest point in living memory and where people had to be evacuated because of wildfires in temperatures that were unprecedented. And now, he said, much of the community is under water.
“We need to start preparing for a future that includes more events like this,” Horgan said.
The weather events are all connected and can be attributed to climate change, said John Clague, a professor in the Earth Sciences Department at Simon Fraser University.
“Scientists are now saying these particular events, they’re becoming more frequent, exacerbated or ramped up by climate change,” he said.
The record temperatures in the summer set the stage for the wildfires, said Clague. The fires burned the ground in a way that prevents water from seeping into the soil. He said that resulted in the water from the torrential rains pouring more quickly into steams and rivers, causing floods.
The total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for had not yet been confirmed near the town of Lillooet. Investigators had received reports of two other people who were missing but added that other motorists might have been buried in a slide on Highway 99. ”
Chelsey Hughes said she was thankful to have survived the slide that slammed into her car before it landed in a swamp as she was driving along the highway. Hughes was heading home Sunday when she saw a tree starting to fall as a slide shoved her car about a mile off the road and down an embankment.
“Then the car stopped moving and I was just shocked. I was afraid to move because I didn’t know if I was injured,” she said after spending about five hours shivering on top of her car without a jacket next to another vehicle with four university students sharing one jacket atop their vehicle.
When Hughes finally connected with a 911 dispatcher, he helped her monitor one student’s condition after he had an asthma attack before they finally saw the lights of rescuers.
They spent an hour hiking out, she said of the traumatic events that unfolded Sunday night before nine of them were taken to hospital. She said she has been thinking about the family of a woman who died.
“I think that could have been any one of us, and there’s nothing that you can do. When we got hit by that landslide, we just had to surrender,” she said.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said thousands of animals had died and the province was rushing to get veterinarians to other animals that are in danger.
“I can also tell you that many farmers attempted to move animals and then had to walk away because the roads were disappearing beneath them,” she said.
A trade expert said the loss of major transportation routes will hurt the movement of goods both in and out Canada’s largest port in Vancouver.
“Vancouver really has an outsized role to play in our Pacific trade,” said Werner Antweiler, an associate professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business. “Commodities will be impacted in a much more significant way because it’s coming by rail or coming by big trucks.”
Associated Press writer Jim Morris reported this story in Vancouver and AP writer Rob Gillies reported from Toronto.