Search and rescue officials in British Columbia have confirmed multiple fatalities after a deadly storm hit the Pacific north-west, destroying highways and leaving tens of thousands of people in Canada and the US without power.
Canada’s largest port was cut off by flood waters, as emergency crews in British Columbia announced on Tuesday that at least 10 vehicles had been swept off a highway during a landslide.
“We’re hopeful to find people alive. But obviously that diminishes with time, the nature of the slide activity. People being caught up in mud and debris, it certainly diminishes as time goes by,” said David MacKenzie, the Pemberton district search and rescue manager, to the Globe and Mail.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police confirmed a woman’s body was recovered from the site of the landslide during a search the previous night.
“The total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for has not been confirmed, however investigators have received two missing people reports and believe there may have been other occupied vehicles that were lost in the slide,” said sergeant Janelle Shoihet of the BC RCMP.
Search crews, working alongside the military, planned to use heavy equipment and canine units to continue their search for survivors after poor weather hampered efforts on Monday. On Monday rescue helicopters airlifted 275 people, including 50 children, from a section of highway blocked by landslides.
Although the high winds and the rains caused by an atmospheric river – a huge plume of moisture extending over the Pacific – began easing in the region, most of British Columbia remained under either flood watch or flood warning.
South of the border, tens of thousands of households and businesses remain without power in Washington state. Nearly 50,000 Washington state electrical customers still had no power Tuesday after days of heavy rain triggered mudslides and floods and forced the closure of the west coast’s main north-south highway near the Canadian border, officials said.
North of Bellingham, authorities said one person was still missing Tuesday after being seen in flood waters clinging to a tree.
The Washington governor Jay Inslee declared a severe weather state of emergency in 14 counties and said the state emergency management division, with support from the Washington national guard, would coordinate the response.
Earlier in the day, the port of Vancouver, the largest in Canada, announced that all rail access had been cut by floods and landslides further to the east, a development that could hit shipments of grain, coal and potash. The TransMountain pipeline, which carries 300,000 barrels of oil a day, was also shut down.
With all of its surrounding highways closed off due to damage, including a section of the Coquihalla highway that officials warn could take months to repair, the city of Vancouver is effectively cut off from the rest of Canada by road.
Aerial footage of the Fraser Valley, south-east of Vancouver, showed swaths of the land, including highways, underwater.
“This is an uncertain and scary time for people who are affected. They don’t understand what’s happening and what the future will be,” the Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun told reporters on Tuesday after parts of the city were placed under evacuation order.
As the scope of the damage became more clear, provincial officials faced questions over whether they adequately prepared residents for the heavy deluge of rain, which broke numerous records. Many of the alerts issued to drivers are highly localized, meaning travellers between two cities might not be aware of regional risks like flooding.
BC’s public safety minister Mike Farnworth defended his government’s handling of the situation, telling reporters the province warned residents that driving conditions would be dangerous.
“Those warnings and travel advisories are out. You know there was a lot of warnings that you know there’s a lot of rain coming and you know what most people stay home,” he said. “Most people stayed home and the reality is that communities are prepared.