The fight for Abbotsford: How this B.C. city rallied in the face of disaster — even as it eyes the sky for what comes next

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ABBOTSFORD, B.C.—Aside from a cold breeze, there is the kind of stillness that comes after a storm in and around Abbotsford.

In an area that had been covered by water Monday, the receded floodwaters now reveal debris-ridden fields where crops usually grow.

But there are also signs of a still-unfolding crisis in this Fraser Valley city, more than an hour east of Vancouver.

To the east of this community of about 150,000 residents, the Sumas Dike is still in precarious shape. Officials fear sections could be breached by water caused by heavy rain and again overtake much of the Sumas Prairie, a major farming area in the southern part of Abbotsford.


Helicopters passed noisily overhead Friday, and police officers staffed roadblocks to keep anyone from entering those streets that remain washed-out.

Though what’s happening can seem like slow motion to the untrained eye, for locals, it is a race — against time and water.

The city is urgently working to build a temporary replacement to a broken dike in a low-lying area overflowing with water.

What they are desperately seeking to avoid is another catastrophic flood when the next heavy rainfall occurs, expected next week.

A photo taken by a local resident shows the Sumas Prairie, a low-lying farming area in Abbotsford, flooded with water.

The storm earlier this week flooded farms in the area and left livestock in peril or dead. The city is now focusing on filling the dike in the Sumas River where there is currently a 100-metre gap.

“What I don’t know is the integrity of the existing Sumas Dike,” Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun acknowledged during a news conference Friday.

“I have instructed our city manager that I want to see that closed before the next rain event, which is scheduled to arrive, I think, Tuesday morning or Monday night.”

Braun said he was confident the work would be completed by Tuesday morning.

The situation is precarious. The dike has been weakened, but to what extent is not yet known, Braun said.

“The army is on the ground inspecting, walking those dikes to look for weaknesses and we’ve already found some weaknesses. It hasn’t let go, but it could let go 10 minutes from now,” Braun said.

There are currently 64 Canadian Forces soldiers on the ground in Abbotsford. Another 60 were set to arrive Friday night.

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But the story of Abbotsford, over this tumultuous week has been one of a community rallying in the face of disaster.

A tractor drives over a flooded road caused by heavy rains and mudslides earlier in the week in Abbotsford.

Cam Raines lives across the street from the Barrowtown Pump Station at the northern tip of the Sumas Prairie, which that suffered extensive flooding as water gushed in from the Nooksack River from neighbouring Washington state.

He has been working around the clock to keep the pumps going to prevent water from the overflowing river from flooding the low-lying land.

“The first couple nights, we were under a bit of stress there; the water was rising, it was breaching close to coming into the building,” he said, adding that a series of emergency doors designed to keep excess water out of the pump station failed, but they managed to barricade it with an excavator.

As of Friday morning, the water had stopped rising, which Raines said has led to a sense of relief among local residents and farmers.

“We are currently holding on to our water height. … We’ve got better weather, yesterday it poured rain all day which doesn’t help anything anywhere. But today is bright blue sky and we’re definitely feel a feeling a lot more confident,” he said.

If the pump station were to be flooded, it would cause the pumps to fail which could cause the Fraser River to engulf the entire area.

People load sand bags to try and stop the rising flood waters in Barrowtown near Abbotsford, B.C. on Friday.

Next to Abbotsford International Airport, at the Tradex exhibition centre, a large group of men were unloading boxes with clothing and supplies from a car.

The Tradex has been turned into an evacuation centre and the more than 25 men helping to unload boxes were Mexican migrant workers.

Some were shivering in T-shirts, having left so quickly they didn’t have time to grab a change of clothes or even jackets from where they were staying.

“It was very scary,” Diego Tellez said. “The water was going up, up. I didn’t know what was going on.”

The men said they are nervous they may lose out on future work because of the flood, but Tellez said his boss thinks they may be working again within days.

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For now, he said, they are happy to be at the Tradex.

“We’re safe here,” he said.

People load sand bags to try and stop the rising flood waters in Barrowtown on Friday.

As of Friday, 680 people remain evacuated from the Sumas Prairie and 340 people have received help from the Tradex centre. Sixty people were expected to stay there Friday night.

The city pulled back Friday on a dramatic plan to build a levee that would have potentially flooded as many as 22 homes after the water levels stabilized in the Sumas Prairie, a depressed stretch of land that was once a lake but drained for agriculture and livestock purposes about 100 years ago.

Mark Topper and his father are co-owners of Topp’s Hops, an Abbotsford-based hop farm.

On Monday evening, as floodwaters gathered in the Fraser Valley, Topper had driven his truck home through a foot and half of rising water, escaping through one of the last safe passages of roadway. His father, who resides on the farm, was evacuated to Chilliwack the next morning.

Unable to access their farm, the Toppers on Friday still had no idea what would happen to their crops, which they harvested in September.

“It’s this kind of agonizing waiting game to get down there and assess what the damage is for everyone,” Topper told the Star. “We’re waiting day to day, minute by minute to get back to the farms. We’re hearing water levels from three to six feet.”

And though he’s warmed by the community’s response to the disaster, and by the stories of heroic rescues, his outlook was bleak.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be quite a catastrophic account of loss and, you know – time and hours and personal belongings and financially and even just the supply production that is done in this, this region will be affected for months to come. We’re seeing catastrophic damage and loss and disruption to just about everyone’s lives and well-being.”

Damage from floodwaters is seen on Boundary Road, that separates the United States, right, and Canada, left, after water receded in Abbotsford, B.C.

The mayor, Braun, said he understands people want to return to their homes and livestock but it’s crucial people stay out of areas still under emergency order.

“We have had no injuries or tragedies that we are aware of as of this moment and I don’t want to have anybody out there as a victim. So please heed the advice,” Braun said.

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He said, ultimately, the entire dam may have to be rebuilt to a higher standard to protect Sumas Prairie.

The province, meanwhile, announced Friday that it is placing temporary travel and fuel restrictions on the general public as it grapples with the flooding.

Residents on the Lower Mainland, from Vancouver to Hope; on the Sunshine Coast; on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and those living between Squamish and Pemberton, are limited to purchasing 30 litres of fuel per trip to a gas station.

The emergency restrictions are currently expected to last between 10 and 11 days.

Southern Railway of British Columbia (SRY Rail Link) employees survey a section of rail lines that are washed out in numerous places and covered in flood debris after water receded in Abbotsford, B.C.

Under the new measures, price gouging and reselling fuel are prohibited. Essential vehicles, including commercial, medical and service vehicles, including Canada Post vehicles, will not be restricted.

Restrictions have also been placed on non-essential travel along severely damaged highways, including parts of Hwy. 99, Hwy. 3 and Hwy. 7. Road checks will be in place and residents who violate the orders could be facing fines as high as $2,000.

“We need to keep the most severely affected roads clear for the movement of essential people, goods and services,” said B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, at an afternoon news conference Friday to announce the new measures.

The gas shortage is related to damage to the Trans-Mountain pipeline and highways, but the province is working with the federal government to get more fuel into B.C. by truck and barge from Alberta, Washington State, Oregon and California.

Farnworth urged patience at the gas pumps and asked residents to observe the new rules.

“The people of this province will do the right thing; they will pull together,” said Farnworth.

“If we’re greedy, we’ll fail.”

With files from Francine Kopun, Richie Assaly and The Canadian Press

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