“Our community has been devastated and everyone right now is going through heartbreak and a whole lot of fear of not knowing what is next,” Merritt Mayor Linda Brown said Wednesday.
Brown said there are more than 575 area homes still underwater. But all 7,000 residents were ordered to evacuate the city Monday after flooding from the Coldwater River caused the complete failure of the municipality’s wastewater treatment plant.
While many heeded the evacuation order, others have stayed behind — and that’s something Brown is concerned about.
“The last few days have been really stressful, really difficult for residents and the emergency operations chief,” Brown said.
“We are working hard to bring them back. It’s been a lot of hard work so far and we are prepared to do more.”
Assessments have yet to be completed, though Brown said “professionals of every kind” are currently working to suss out exactly what’s needed to improve conditions.
“We cannot bring citizens back as long as we have unsafe water and no access to the wastewater system,” she said. “So that is our No. 1 priority … to make sure water is safe for residents and they can come home, flush toilets, and use water. Without that, we cannot bring them back.”
There have been cases of people who have stayed home, ignored roadblocks and evacuation orders, and returned home after leaving. That’s caused some to need to be rescued and other issues.
“There are people out there who are choosing to stay at home. I can’t blame them for wanting to stay home,” Brown said.
“Home is what we are used to, but on the other hand it’s hard on city staff who are looking after the city at this point.”
One of those residents is Othmar Vohringer, a butcher.
“We have an evacuation order but I stay home because we have to protect the house. Because loads of criminals come up here,” said Vohringer.
“It’s a bit of a drug heaven up here, drug dealers are next to our house and if we leave they’ll be in the house in five minutes.”
Vohringer continues to cut meat for some of his clients. He says he’s cancelled most of his orders but the little meat he has – has to go out.
“We do a lot of custom cutting, like the farmers bring their beef in, we process it for them, they take it home so they have food for the winter,” Vohringer told Global News on Wednesday.
“It has to go out, I can’t say no and let the meat rot.”
Some residents say they were told that they would be able to get pets and medication which was left behind in a hurry, but now they’re being told differently.
“We read on the community site, that we could come back and get our animals. The police are not letting us through now, so my five-year-old is going to be devastated that our cat is going to die,” said Merritt resident Jennifer Glassin.
“The cops refuse to talk to us, told us to call city hall and city hall doesn’t answer. We have no way to get (our animals) through unless I make a run for it.”
Greg Lowis, the city’s director of corporate services, said there is no timeline yet for when people will be able to return home, and getting sewage and potable water in order is a necessity.
“At the moment, the wastewater is sucking things through, but just discharging,” he said, adding there’s no treatment that can be done.
When it comes to potable water, there’s some “good news”.
“There’s a possibility that within several days we may be in a boil water advisory situation instead of the current situation with no potable water in Merritt,” Lowis said.
That said, one without the other won’t work.
On Monday, Emergency Services asked Merritt residents with odd-numbered houses to go to Kamloops, and those with even-numbered houses are being directed to Kelowna — if they do not have family or friends to stay with.
It was a lot for people to juggle.
“I just feel completely nuts. I have three kids, cats, a lizard and I have a house,” evacuee Patricia Anderson said Monday. “We have lived in Merritt for only a year and we’ve had to deal with fire evacuations and now flooding evacuations.”
For the 575 residents whose houses are still submerged, Mayor Brown said there will be a long road toward getting life back to normal.