People who were stranded by high water due to flooding are rescued by a volunteer operating a boat in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday, November 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Woman swept away by B.C. mudslide waited hours on car for rescuers

VANCOUVER — Chelsey Hughes is thankful to have survived a mudslide that slammed into her car before it landed in a swamp as she was driving along a British Columbia highway during a record-breaking rainfall. Now she’s thinking of others who are dealing with similar harrowing experiences.

Hughes, 24, was heading home on Highway 7 between Agassiz and Hope when she saw a tree starting to fall as a slide shoved her car about a kilometre off the road and down an embankment.

“Then the car stopped moving and I was just shocked. I was afraid to move because I didn’t know if I was injured,” she said after spending about five hours shivering on top of her car without a jacket next to another vehicle with three young university students sharing one jacket atop their vehicle.

When Hughes finally connected with a 911 dispatcher, he helped her monitor one student’s condition after he had an asthma attack.

Then they waited for about five hours before seeing the lights of rescuers.

They spent an hour hiking out of the area, she said of the traumatic events that unfolded Sunday night before nine of them were taken to hospital in Chilliwack.

Nearly 300 people on that stretch of highway were rescued by helicopter throughout Monday after spending the night in their vehicles.

Hughes said she travels with snacks, water and a tarp in the truck of her car but quickly realized she couldn’t reach any of those supplies, which were submerged in the rising, muddy water.

The Surrey resident and yoga instructor is now thinking about the family of a woman who died while driving along Highway 99 near Lillooet as crews search for at least two others who went missing along that route.

“I think that could have been any one of us, and there’s nothing that you can do. When we got hit by that landslide, we just had to surrender,” she said Wednesday.

Hughes said she is also thinking of residents of a low-lying area of Abbotsford after warnings that they face a significant risk to life and must get out immediately to avoid rising water levels.

Mayor Henry Braun said conditions were dire overnight because a key pumping station was in danger of being overwhelmed.

The station was the only thing keeping water from the nearby Fraser River from engulfing most of the Sumas Prairie flats, he told a news briefing.

“Right now, things are holding steady,” Braun said of the situation at the Barrowtown Pump Station. Crews spent Tuesday night sandbagging around it.

“I’m feeling much better today than last night,” Braun said, although he cautioned the danger has not passed and river levels, which have dropped two metres since the storm ended, must drop another metre before flood gates can be opened to allow even more water to escape.

An evacuation order was issued for about 1,000 properties in the Sumas Prairie area Tuesday when a severe weekend rainstorm pushed up water levels in the area, which is home to many large dairy and poultry farms and other agricultural operations.

Abbotsford fire Chief Darren Lee said about 180 rescues were completed Tuesday and early Wednesday as trapped residents asked for help to leave their flooded properties.

“Overnight, we actually brought in additional helicopters when we realized the flooding was worsening in the east Prairie area,” he said.

Three helicopters carried people to safety overnight, Lee said, while 11 teams in boats also brought out trapped residents.

No one was unaccounted for, said Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr.

About 80 callers were still awaiting help by daylight and responders planned to “work through the queue” through the morning, he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is connecting with local authorities and the province to learn more about the ongoing situation and maintaining supply chain routes.

“I spoke with the premier, I spoke with a number of mayors last night to talk about how people are doing in this terrifically bad situation,” he said.

“We’re also working with them on saving people, on sending resources, like the Canadian Armed Forces, to support people in the situation. But also we’ll be there for the cleanup and the rebuilding after the impacts of these extreme weather events,” Trudeau said from Washington, where he was to attend a meeting Thursday with the presidents of the United States and Mexico on challenges facing the continent.

Defence Minister Anita Anand confirmed Canadian Forces crews had been approved in response to a request for assistance from the B.C. government.

Provincial Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the B.C. cabinet would meet Wednesday to consider whether to declare a provincewide state of emergency in response to floods, washouts and landslides.

Every major route between the Lower Mainland and the Interior has been cut by washouts, flooding or landslides following record-breaking rainfall across southern B.C. between Saturday and Monday.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he has twice spoken with Premier John Horgan and expects to have another conversation later Wednesday with an offer to provide any assistance.

“On behalf of Alberta, we stand behind British Columbians who have been affected by this flooding and damage,” Kenney said. “So many Albertans are originally from B.C. They have relatives and family there, so I know that we’re all concerned.”

Kenney said his province will be directly affected by the weather events in the neighbouring province when it comes to supply chains, which were already hampered by the pandemic.

“This will become very acute now for Alberta and the rest of Canada with the disruption of parts of the Trans-Canada Highway and some other roadways,” he said, adding trucking and rail traffic would now have to transit through Washington and Montana.

“But our first concern is for those people whose lives and homes have been affected and we just want to be there to support them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press