Thousands evacuated as ice jam forces floodwaters into Canadian town

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Up to 15,000 residents were told to abandon their homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, after an ice jam caused rivers to burst their banks, sending floodwaters into the town.

Officials in the Canadian town have been warning of the possibility of flooding during the spring melt for weeks, reported the Calgary Sun.

Fears came to fruition early Sunday morning as ice began to break and jam on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. The ice has since created a blockage almost 25 km (15.5 miles) long, impeding the flow of the rivers and spreading water into the town.

Evacuation orders began as voluntary on Sunday but were quickly switched to mandatory as water levels rose. By Monday evening, downtown Fort McMurray, Draper, Waterways and the Taiga Nova Industrial Park were submerged or under evacuation orders, according to the Calgary Sun.

A voluntary evacuation is in place for Grayling Terrace and the gas was shut off as a precaution. Heat or hot water would not be available to any residence who chose to stay, reported the Fort McMurray Today.

“A boil-water advisory had also been issued for all of Fort McMurray and the communities of Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation #468, Gregoire Lake Estates and Saprae Creek Estates,” the Calgary Sun reported.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has reported that 200 people have been rescued after not following evacuation orders.

Remarkable photos and videos have emerged showing water levels halfway up residences and, in some cases, up to roofs of buildings.

The Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is reportedly not under immediate threat, but it is located just a block away from the Wal-Mart in town, located near the bank of the Clearwater River, where the parking lot is completely submerged.

Highway 63, which runs through Fort McMurray and across the Athabasca River remains open, although traffic is slow in areas where motorists have parked their cars to venture into the blocked-off downtown area on foot.

Traffic is at a standstill in other areas as evacuees line up in their vehicles for drive-thru registrations to receive lodging assignments. As hotels in the town begin to fill up, some families are being sent north to the oil camps.

The drive-thru registrations are one of many precautions being taken in the age of social distancing. Officials took into account the possibility of needing to evacuate in the instance of flooding or wildfires as they began planning for the spread of COVID-19 in January.

The risk for ice jams and flooding return every spring when the frozen rivers begin to melt and break apart as temperatures begin to trend higher. After a frigid start to the month, temperatures quickly rebounded.

On April 1, the high was minus 13 C (7 F). Since the middle of the month, daytime temperatures have been consistently above freezing and even reached 21 C (69 F) on April 25.

The normal high temperature for Fort McMurray starts in the middle 10s C (middle 40s F) at the beginning of April and climbs into the lower 10s C (middle 50s F) by the end of the month.

A passing shower is expected in Fort McMurray on Wednesday with more rain in the forecast later in the week. Any amount of rainfall can exacerbate flooding. Temperatures are forecast to remain near ot above normal.

While there are methods to break up ice jams, including floating excavators as well as explosives, the size of this ice jam renders these ineffective. Instead, officials will be utilizing sandbags and pumps to prevent floodwaters from reaching farther inland, especially near the hospital.

There is also talk of bringing in the military for assistance in addition to providing financial support to displaced residents.

Fort McMurray is no stranger to natural disasters. There have been flooding events in the past, but in 2016 a large portion of the town was destroyed in a wildfire.

“That odd feeling I felt four years ago when we had to evacuate because of the wildfire is that same old feeling again,” Rodi Sartagoda, who was leaving her home with her husband and son, told the Calgary Sun. “This time, there’s that extra worry because we have the pandemic and now we have to go out from our homes.”

At this time there is no word on when residents will be able to return to their homes.

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