One person dead, hundreds involved in harrowing highway rescues, thousands evacuated from their homes after a wastewater treatment facility flooded, and a shutdown for the Trans Mountain pipeline: these were some of the scenes unfolding after a monster storm dropped a month’s worth of rain on southern British Columbia this past weekend.
Tuesday evening brought news of one confirmed death, with CBC News reporting that a woman’s body had been recovered from the site of a mudslide on a highway near Lillooet, 250 northeast of Vancouver, and some 60 kilometres due north of what remains of the town of Lytton after it was incinerated by wildfire June 30. Search and rescue efforts were still under way as The Energy Mix went to virtual press.
CBC says a CN Rail freight train near Yale, B.C. was partially derailed by mudslides and washouts, with no injuries, fires, or spills,and no dangerous goods were involved. At one point Tuesday, all Canadian rail and highway access to the Port of Vancouver had been cut off.
“Experts say the floods have taken an already tight supply chain and made it even tighter, at the worst possible time,” the national broadcaster wrote Tuesday. “Most highways in and out of Vancouver have effectively been shut down, bringing truck traffic to a crawl. While trucks are used for shorter haul distances of comparatively smaller loads, trains handle the bulk of transport.”
Carly Isaac, one of the 7,000 evacuated from Merritt, B.C. after its water treatment plant flooded, testified to the bigger picture, sending the Toronto Star photos of the escalating crisis under the heading, “Global warming.” Recalling a summer of intense wildfires threatening the town, Isaac wrote: “Two months ago, we had fire alerts and orders. Now water is doing it.”
Simon Fraser University earth scientist John Clague confirmed the connection between the unprecedented precipitation—more rain in two days than the region would normally get in all of November—and the climate crisis. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture than a cooler one, Clague told the Globe and Mail, so when it rains, it really rains.
Enough precipitation on the Lower Mainland, in fact, to prompt the federal government agency that operates the Trans Mountain pipeline to temporarily shutter both the existing line and the expansion project.
Clague remarked on the contrast between the weekend deluge and June’s lethal heat dome. “To me, the counterpoint is amazing. But that’s what happens with climate changes,” he said.
The rainfall is being attributed to an “atmospheric river”, a “dense mass of water vapour clouds carrying moisture from the tropics and subtropics toward the poles, and falling as rain,” reports the Star. While such rivers have been part of B.C.’s coastal climate for millennia, they are coming ashore more often now, and are more intense than in the past, said Brent Ward, co-director of Simon Fraser’s Centre for Natural Hazards Research.
He added that increasingly hot wildfires—the kind that burn right down to bedrock—are leaving mountainsides stripped of the soil and vegetation that would in the past have soaked up the rain.
“The water doesn’t infiltrate” into the soil, he said. “It just flows across the landscape and triggers landslides.”
About 275 people, including about 50 children, and at least 20 dogs found themselves trapped overnight Sunday between mudslides on a section of Highway 7 between Agassiz and Hope.
While all have since been rescued by armed forces personnel, using Cormorant helicopters to airlift people to evacuation centres, authorities are waiting for the slide zone to be carefully cleared before confirming that no one else was injured or killed when the mountain gave way.
Authorities are also waiting for geotechnical assessments of a portion of the Coquihalla Highway, a major link between the Lower Mainland and the Interior, which was swept away early Monday morning.
Also waiting: the 7,000 displaced citizens of Merritt, recently haunted by the fear of wildfires burning their homes to the ground, now contending with the reality of nightmare flooding. Breaching its banks, the Coldwater River inundated roads, bridges, and the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Authorities have deemed the facility “inoperable for an indefinite period,” writes the Globe.
Evacuees without family or friends in the immediate area are currently staying at reception centres in Kelowna and Kamloops, as well as at Camp Hope, a camping and conference centre located on Highway 7.
Ready to welcome them at Camp Hope with bedding and blankets, reports the CBC, were members of Lytton First Nation, who were evacuated to the centre in July when their community burned to the ground, and have been there ever since.