Some residents of Merritt, B.C., will be returning to their homes this week after the entire city’s population was forced to flee due to extreme flooding that caused the complete failure of the municipality’s wastewater system last Monday.
Relentless rain caused the Coldwater River, which runs through the southern Interior community, to overrun its banks Nov. 15, triggering an evacuation order for all 7,000 residents shortly after 7 a.m.
The City of Merritt says about 50 volunteers spent the weekend assessing the damage to properties in the flood inundation area with support from B.C. Housing, Merritt’s building inspection and fire departments, the City of Kamloops and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
The city on Monday released its three-phase “Return Home Plan,” outlining when residents can begin to return and what services — such as groceries, gas and medical — will be available once they get there.
Officials expect the plan to begin Tuesday at noon, when the first evacuation order is expected to be lifted.
“What you are coming home to is a city that’s changed,” Mayor Linda Brown said in a video statement.
Phase 1 includes all residences north of the RCMP detachment at 2999 Voght St. Residents will remain on both evacuation alert and a boil-water notice.
Residents who live between the detachment and Nicola Avenue will be part of Phase 2, and are expected to be able to return home by Thursday.
The plan says this area was not as affected by flooding as other neighbourhoods. But before residents can return, water testing will be done while the reservoir is filled.
The plan becomes more complicated for properties south of Nicola Avenue, which are part of Phase 3. Some properties, the plan says, were affected by flooding and others were not, so evacuation orders will be lifted on a block-by-block basis. For some areas, where damage is more severe, evacuation orders could remain in place for an “extended” period.
Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Rob Fleming said Monday he’s prepared to offer support and resources to help Merritt get to a place where all residents are able to return.
“There’s a lot to do,” he said during an interview on CBC’s On the Coast.
The city is asking residents to bring food and other supplies with them as they return home, as grocery stores may be operating at a reduced capacity in the early stages of the return.
Residents are also asked to use as little water as possible, to preserve it for emergency fire services.
Additionally, the hospital will not be open, but emergency services are available to take people to Kamloops for medical attention.
The plan says electricity, gas and internet service will be operational for the Phase 1 area, and Phase 2 can expect service limitations.
The school district is working on a plan for remote learning and eventually getting students back into classrooms.
Garbage and recycling services will return the week of Nov. 29.
More information about the plan can be found on the city’s website.
Wastewater system close to up and running again
On Sunday, Brown said city staff are also close to getting the wastewater system up and running again.
She said a testing laboratory stayed open in Kelowna over the weekend just to help out.
Water samples are being tested for total coliforms and E. coli. Samples take 24 hours to process and before the city can update its water status, it must submit multiple samples from different places, taken at different times.
“The results so far are good, but we need to bring more of the system online,” said Brown.
The evacuation order was issued two hours after city officials put out an alert asking citizens to immediately stop using water or flushing toilets.
“How do you run a city when no one can go to the bathroom?” said Greg Lowis, Merritt information officer.
Residents evacuated to Kamloops and Kelowna
When the order was issued, Merritt residents with odd-numbered addresses were asked to head to Kamloops, while residents with even-numbered addresses were asked to go to Kelowna.
On Sunday, the federal government announced it is waiving normal employment insurance rules for British Columbians left jobless by extreme flooding.
Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough says those impacted should immediately apply for employment insurance benefits even if they wouldn’t normally be eligible.
In addition to the state of emergency, the province said Thursday that those affected by the floods will be eligible for financial assistance. Disaster financial assistance is available for anyone who is unable to obtain insurance to cover disaster-related losses, and applications are open until Feb. 12, 2022.