“We were ready for a flood, but no one was ready for this.”
That is the sentiment that has echoed across thousands of conversations over the last week, as Boundary residents grapple with what is being described as historic and catastrophic flooding.
And there’s more on the way. While the river peaked on Thursday, prompting thousands of evacuations, the river is set to rise again this week. Forecasts are a guessing game, but officials are telling residents not to return home, to leave sandbags in place, and to be ready for more, maybe even worse.
While the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) has been activated for well over a week, the flooding situation worsened, rapidly, over the course of 48 hours last week. The centre is staffed at a Level 3, which means that staff from all local governments are involved, as well as health authorities, environmental agencies, utilities providers and all manner of first responders.
The first evacuation alerts were issued late Wednesday; by Thursday midday thousands had been told to leave their properties. Business owners along Market Avenue, many of which were four or five blocks from the nearest riverside walk, watched as the streets began to slowly fill up around them. It was about two hours later the order came down for businesses to close and leave. Many business owners echoed the sentiment that they had never seen anything like it. The downtown never floods, or if it does, it’s a few inches in a few basements.
RDKB officials have described this event as catastrophic, as more than historic, according to Dan Derby, regional fire chief for Kootenay Boundary Fire Rescue, acting as EOC as liaison.
EOC director and RDKB Emergency Management coordinator Chris Marsh has been conducting daily briefings with media. The situation changes rapidly, he said, and EOC staff have been operating nearly around the clock.
The water levels, at their peak, reached over 60 centimetres above the next highest recorded level in 1948, said EOC.
As of Tuesday’s media briefing, the water was flowing into the Kettle River Watershed at a rate of 1,200 cubic metres per second. By Wednesday, that had risen to 1,700 cubmic metres per second. That is four 25 metre swimming polls per second.
This dire water flow is the result of several environmental factors converging at once. A combination of warm temperatures melting the snowpack, already well above average and rain meant that more water than normal was coming into the river system at once.
According to RDKB officials, the situation changes day by day. Despite the water levels receding, residents have been advised to leave sandbags in place. The Granby River is forecasted to hit the same levels as last week and the Kettle River near Westbridge is forecasted to exceed last week’s levels, though the West Kettle is projected to be lower.
RCMP have been deployed to the region in large numbers; bystanders report counting several cars patrolling the downtown early in the morning in an effort to stave off looting. Marsh said Tuesday there had been no reports of looting.
And while people have been evacuated out of their homes by the thousands, not all have left. Search and Rescue teams are working in teams to extract people from homes. In some cases, people stayed inside their homes for two days after their homes first took on water.
Dan Derby, Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Chief, added that while crews are actively working on rescues, residents should leave when ordered. It puts their lives as well as the lives of search and rescue members at risk.
“We have a lot of people who refused to leave under order and we have had to put a lot of our rescue resources into going back in to rescue these people when they did not leave under order originally,” he said. “We physically have swimmers in the water, door-to-door, involved with rescues in Area D and the city, this morning, all through the night last night.”
Teams from Castlegar, Rossland, Nelson and Trail have joined Grand Forks Search and Rescue on the ground. Teams issued evacuation orders under the directive of the EOC, as well as assembled in teams of two to perform swiftwater rescues. Over 30 had been performed by Sunday.
Those rescue haven’t been confined to just people. Cats are also common rescuees; many residents thought their pets would be fine overnight and they would be allowed back in to get them the next day. On Sunday, a Grand Forks Search and Rescue team rescued cats from three addresses – along with a pet tarantula.
“It is emotional, these pets are part of the family. They are loved ones,” Andres Dean, Grand Forks Search and Rescue member said. “[By going to rescue pets] we hope to reduce the chances of people going back into evacuation areas.”
According to the RDKB, 1,444 people have registered with the Red Cross, and about 63 of those are using group lodging. Another 141 are using billeting resources, and 126 have made use of commercial lodging. Hundreds, even those staying with friends and family, have registered for support.
Many people knew they might expect flooding this year. Forecasts in February, March and April measuring the snowpack indicated it was well-above normal. Many people, especially in the neighbourhood of Johnson Flats, which flooded badly last year, were prepared.
Posts on social media showed volunteers beginning to sandbag homes up to two weeks or more in advance.
Red Cross volunteers have been deployed in the area since Wednesday. Coordinator Mandana Salimian said that while the number on the ground varies from day to day, in the first few days of response there had been 70 or more volunteers in the Boundary. The Salvation Army is also in the area, handling meal prep for evacuees.
On Thursday, it was announced the request for military assistance had made its way up the ladder and help was on the way to flood-ravaged Grand Forks.
“We see the fatigue levels,” said volunteer coordinator Jessica Mace of the volunteers, many of whom are working exceptionally long days in the sun and the heat. “People are thirsty, tired and worn out.”
That makes sense: the latest estimate from the RDKB indicates that volunteers have already filled some 220,000 sandbags, and that number changes daily.
Mike Farnworth, Minister for Public Safety and responsible for Emergency Management B.C., took questions on Sunday afternoon in Grand Forks. Amid many questions and fears from residents that rural areas would be forgotten when the political winds changed, or a tragedy struck a larger and more populous centre, Farnworth said residents should be assured that the province is planning on being in the Boundary for the long term.
There have been questions about how people can donate. There has already been one fraudulent GoFundMe campaign that did not gain steam. RDKB Area D director Roly Russell advised on Tuesday that they are beginning to examine methods of oversight for a funding campaign.
RDKB assures residents that recovery plans are being developed, though resident safety is still the first priority given the second wave of flooding expected this week.
Before residents return home, the buildings will have to be cleared for structural integrity, mold, sewage and other hazardous materials. Officials have noted that raw sewage, as well as an array of other hazards, are likely present in the water. Representatives from Ministry of the Environment are actively engaging with the EOC about any health hazards and to begin conducting inspections.
Some people have speculated that some homes will be torn down. Derby said now that water has receded, damage assessments done by helicopter are showing that in some places, the water has carved new paths.
Residents are preparing for more flooding later this week, fortifying sandbag walls up to three or four feet and using rolls of plastic to seal off doors where possible. Emergency officials are looking ahead and re-entry plans are being developed, but the sense is that Grand Forks will be playing the long game on flood recovery.
“The impacts from this event will be long-lasting,” Marsh said. “We are talking years and years and millions of dollars.”