Two children were among four people reported missing Saturday after a long procession of intense thunderstorms dumped record amounts of rain across a wide swath of Nova Scotia, washing away roads and bridges amid widespread flooding.
The children were with three other people in a car in West Hants — a largely rural municipality northwest of Halifax — when the vehicle got stuck in floodwaters, RCMP spokeswoman Cindy Bayers said in an interview. The three other occupants managed to escape, but the Mounties declined to release more information.
The RCMP said a second vehicle in West Hants, carrying four people, was also submerged. Two people escaped, but a youth and a man remain unaccounted for.
As first responders and ground search crews continued scouring the area on Saturday, the RCMP said no other details would be released because doing so would encourage untrained people to start their own rescue efforts, putting themselves in danger.
“I know it’s in our nature to spring into action and help,” Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston told a news conference Saturday afternoon. “But now is not the time.”
Having declared a provincewide state of emergency, Houston said he could not stop thinking about those missing and their families.
“I want them to know that everything that can be done is being done,” he said. “I know the entire province joins me in praying for their safe return.”
Torrential downpours started Friday afternoon across the Halifax region, dumping more than 200 millimetres of rain in the Hammonds Plains, Bedford and Lower Sackville areas. The port city typically receives about 90-100 mm of rain during an average July.
Based on radar estimates and unofficial observations, Environment Canada said some parts of Nova Scotia may have received more than 300 mm in 24 hours. Radar maps show the heaviest rainfall extending along the province’s southwestern shore to a point north of Halifax.
About 750 people were forced to flee their homes overnight across the Halifax region. And widespread flooding was also reported in Lunenberg County, west of Halifax, where more than 400 people were evacuated from their homes Saturday.
Albaro Alenan was among a handful of evacuees taking in the afternoon sunshine outside the Lunenberg County Lifestyle Centre. He said he was driving from Prince Edward Island to central Nova Scotia on Friday night when he crashed his truck at the height of the storm.
“I am from Spain, and I’ve never seen a storm in my life like this,” he said, recalling how he was disoriented by the constant lightning near Chester, N.S. “I don’t know if the water pushed me, or if I hydroplaned, but I fell to one side of the road, and the water started to rise.”
He escaped from the sinking truck, but his arms were badly scraped in the process. In the rush to get out, he left behind his two laptops and cellphone. He had planned to stay with friends nearby, but their home was flooded.
On Friday night, water levels rose so fast in the Bedford area north of Halifax that volunteers with Halifax Ground Search and Rescue were using small boats to rescue people from inundated homes.
In the Hammonds Plains area, northwest of the city, flooding washed out driveways and the shoulders of many roads.
That’s the same area where 151 homes and businesses were destroyed by a wildfire that started on May 28th, forcing evacuations that affected 16,000 residents. And for much of the past week, the Halifax area has been sweltering under an immobile dome of humidity — a rare event so close to the coast.
On Twitter, one resident wryly predicted: “Locusts next week.”
It was only last fall that post-tropical storm Fiona descended on the Atlantic region, killing three people, flattening scores of homes and knocking out power to more than 600,000 homes and businesses. Fiona was the most costly weather event in the region’s history, causing more than $800 million in insured damage.
“It’s pretty obvious that the climate is changing – from Fiona last year to the wildfires in the spring and now flooding in the summer,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said in an interview.
“We’re getting storms that used to be considered one-in-50-year events … pretty regularly.”
While the official statistics have yet to be recorded, it’s believed the Halifax region has not seen this level of rainfall since Aug. 16, 1971, when hurricane Beth made landfall near the eastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia. At that time, almost 250 mm of rain fell on the Halifax area, causing widespread flooding and $3.5 million in damage.
“I’m old enough to remember that one,” Savage said. “But the consistent, violent nature of the thunderstorms last night and into this morning were frightening.”
At one point, more than 80,000 Nova Scotia homes and businesses were in the dark as thousands of lightning strikes knocked out electricity.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the blackouts and damage during an unrelated event in Toronto, saying the federal government was ready to provide support to the province.
“This is a time when we’re thinking of families going through an incredibly difficult moment,” he said. “We will be there for them while they are going through this, but also through the difficult days and weeks to come.”
Meanwhile, residents in several communities were warned to stay off the roads, including several major highways. Online maps produced by the Halifax region show more than 30 road blockages, mainly to the north and west of the city.
When Chantal Blanchard and Travis Hartley-Cox left their Halifax-area subdivision around 7 p.m. Friday to head into the city, “all hell was breaking loose.” Blanchard said the water on the roads resembled a “white-water rapid.”
Their return trip took two hours as they carefully dodged abandoned vehicles on washed-out roads. But they eventually reached a roadblock where the waterlogged road had broken up. The pair then waded through waist-deep water, keen to get home to their three dogs.
Scores of images shared on social media show cars plowing through deep water. And one video from the Windsor Junction area north of Halifax shows firefighters standing on the roof of their submerged pumper truck. On the normally busy Bedford Highway, a beaver was spotted Friday swimming across the submerged road.
Paula Finlayson, a 25-year resident of the Hammonds Plains area, described the storm as “awe-striking.” Surveying a washed-out bridge and overland flooding that looked more like a large lake, Finlayson said she felt claustrophobic when she realized she was trapped in her subdivision.
“It’s so crazy, it’s bizarre,” she said, looking at the water rushing beneath the crumbling bridge. “This is major.”
Environment Canada meteorologist Ian Hubbard said the amount of rain that fell over Nova Scotia was remarkable, but the rate at which it accumulated in some areas was incredible.
“Some areas of Nova Scotia have seen similar amounts in the past, but not in such a short timeframe,” he said, adding a weather station in Bedford recorded a “mind boggling” 38 mm in one hour and 178 mm over seven hours.
“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around it,” Hubbard said. “… It’s so much water. It’s incredible.”
Hubbard said a larger, low-pressure weather system over the Great Lakes was responsible for funneling a long series of thunderstorms across the province, which is something that rarely happens on the East Coast.
“It continually pumped in this moist air that was being drawn in from the south. It had a lot of warm and tropical properties, which usually means a lot of water content … a lot of thunder and lightning.”
Marlo Glass and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press