By Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press
SAINT JOHN, N.B. — People fled their homes Wednesday as rising floodwater threatened to surpass record-setting levels along the Saint John River, with one fire chief warning residents: “This could get very uncomfortable.”
Saint John fire Chief Kevin Clifford said the water could rise to 6.6 metres above sea level on Sunday, an alarming forecast that could bring some of the worst flooding to low-lying areas along the river.
“We’re very concerned that the flooding will be unprecedented beyond even the 2008 and 1973 floods,” Clifford said in an interview. “So we’ve issued a recommended evacuation … The evidence suggests that this is going to be worse (flooding) and longer.”
Water levels are so high that Saint John’s famous Reversing Falls are not reversing. The volume of water rushing south toward the Bay of Fundy is pushing past the bay’s high tides, which normally reverse the flow of the river.
“The last three days it’s just not happening,” said tour manager Nicole Gray. “It looks like low tide the whole time.”
Emergency measures officials said flooding was expected to continue for at least the next five days. Residents along the southern reaches of the Saint John River are being told to remain “on high alert.”
At a news conference in Fredericton, where parts of the city’s downtown have been under water for days, Premier Brian Gallant warned residents living next to the river to “prepare for the worst.” He said the number of road closures south of the provincial capital are expected to increase.
“The worst is not over,” said Gallant. “Water levels south of Fredericton are expected to rise over the coming days … Now is the time to take action.”
Gallant warned against complacency.
“This is an event for many people in many communities that we have not seen before,” he said.
The province’s Emergency Measures Organization said access to several areas in Saint John was limited and will likely be completely cut off by flooding.
Nearby in Quispamsis, town officials were pressing people to leave the area if their homes are threatened by the rising floodwaters.
Town spokesman Aaron Kennedy said staff went door to door Monday night, informing residents of about 230 vulnerable homes that they should consider evacuating.
“It is a big deal and we need people to realize from all projections that this is going to be worse than ’73 and 2008, so they need to be ready,” Kennedy said. “We’re preparing for unprecedented levels of water in Quispamsis.”
Robert Ash, club manager at the Royal Kennebeccasis Yacht Club, was busy moving furniture and electronics on an upper floor as water encircled the building.
“We’re completely surrounded,” he said. “This one is approaching the 1973 and 2008 floods but it might exceed even those.”
The voluntary evacuation notice in Saint John could affect about 1,900 people. They are being told to make their own arrangements, or go to the Carleton Community Centre or contact the Canadian Red Cross.
EMO spokesman Geoffrey Downey said more than 30 homes had been evacuated so far, affecting about 100 people. He said that number will likely rise around Saint John. He urged people to leave their homes if threatened by rising water.
“Doing it in the daylight when you still have dry roads is far easier and safer than having to call someone in the middle of the night because you’ve realized your house is under water and your car is under water and the only way to get out is in a boat,” he said.
Amanda Andrews spent much of Wednesday afternoon in the cold water that had flooded the unfinished basement of her parents’ home in Grand Bay-Westfield.
“This is the highest we’ve seen the water,” she said. “In 2008, it got to the front steps but it’s already three or four feet past that.”
Andrews said her father is in Florida and is anxious to get home.
“My heart breaks,” she said, looking at waves lapping against the side of neighbouring homes.
Down the street, a crew filled sandbags behind another home.
One of the men, John Cormier, said he didn’t know if the sandbags would be enough.
“This is all going to be flooded,” he said. “There’s a lot of water and it seems to be getting worse.”
Gallant said it is becoming clear the flooding will damage infrastructure, homes and businesses. He said he had called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday to tell him the province would be seeking federal disaster assistance.
Gallant said Trudeau also offered the assistance of the Canadian Army if needed.
“We are going to listen to experts,” Gallant said. “But at this point, the feeling is that we do have the resources to be able to help New Brunswickers.”
In Ottawa, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the Armed Forces will respond to requests for help.
“We always have things ready if we’re ever needed,” he said.
Downey said the record for Maugerville was 7.11 metres above sea level, and the forecast is calling for 7.1 metres, while in Jemseg the forecast was for 6.7 metres Thursday, which would surpass the record of 6.36 metres in 1973.
As well, the weather isn’t helping. Rain in the forecast and snow is expected in the north.
“For a lot of people, the worst is yet to come and it’s not going to be over any time soon,” Downey said.
In the Fredericton region, water levels are forecast to remain at their current levels.
Other waterways were also at risk of flooding, including the Nashwaak, Salmon, Middle and Tetagouche rivers, EMO said.
— With files from Alison Auld and Keith Doucette in Halifax