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'Natural-disaster hat trick' in Merritt forces Prince George resident to flee

Merritt Centennials forward Blake Astorino of Prince George among thousands of B.C. residents forced to flee flooding

Blake Astorino woke up early last Monday morning in his basement bedroom in Merritt not knowing one of the scariest days of his life was just beginning.

Rushing water from the flooding Coldwater River a short distance from the house had risen over the banks and was creeping toward the house in the south end of Merritt where he’s been billeted as a member of the Merritt Centennials hockey team.

His billet mom, Jenny Pierce, told Blake to start packing up his belongings and reminded him to gather up his suit and dress clothes because the Cents had a game scheduled for Wednesday in Penticton.

The 20-year-old forward phoned his parents, Patty and Ed, in Prince George to let them know what was happening and started loading what he could into his Honda Civic, while Jenny and her husband Jesse grabbed what they could to pack into their SUV and travel trailer.

It was just past 5 a.m. and the flood waters hadn’t reached the end of the driveway but within 15 minutes, nature’s fury was lapping at their feet and waves rippled as a torrent of rising water enveloped their yard. As a third-generation Merritt resident, Jenny knew the house her grandparents built was prone to flooding occasionally, because it was only a short walk from the river, and Jesse told Blake they would likely be back later that day when the water level dropped. But it didn’t.

“I didn’t really pack as much stuff as I probably should have, and when I looked outside the water was starting to get a little worse, but it wasn’t serious,” said Astorino. “So I went back to my room for a bit and I heard (Jenny) yelling, ‘OK, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go,’ and it happened within five minutes. It was like nothing, to water almost in the house in 20 minutes. It was coming so fast and the water was strong.”

By the time Astorino got into his car, the rushing water was already lapping at the doors and as soon as he backed out of the driveway and started down the road his car was half-submerged.

“It was pretty scary for me because my car is so low to the ground and the water was coming up to my windshield and going over the roof,” Astorino said. “If I had left any later I would have been stuck. Luckily, it didn’t stall and I got out.”

Jenny and Jesse rounded up their eight-year-old daughter Charlee and 10-year-old son Covin and put them in the vehicle with their dog Po, a Boston Terrier/miniature schnauzer. They realized their chicken coop was about to be flooded so they threw their seven chickens into the dog carriers and drove away on the flooded street to head for Jenny’s parents’ house on higher ground, thinking they’d be back to normal in a week at most.

“We went from slowly moving around the house packing what we thought we needed to seeing the water breech its banks behind our house and then only having minutes to get in the cars and out,” said Jenny.

“When we started getting ready to leave I took a picture of our yard and home at 5:03 and there was no water near our driveway or lawn, and I have a second picture where I was pulling out of the driveway 12 minutes later at 5:15 and I was pushing through the water down my street with water coming over the hood of my SUV. There was so much debris floating down our road, there were garbage cans, recycle bins, logs, and we were nervous that water was getting in our travel trailer as we pushed through.”

Two rivers – Nicola and Coldwater – flow through Merritt but the Coldwater collected water from the same weather system that moved up the Coquihalla and it was the only one of the two that overflowed its banks in the city during a torrential downpour that lasted nearly four days.

“With all that rain and our forest fires, there was nothing to absorb or stop the water and mud from draining down,” said Jenny. “It didn’t fall on snow. If that much precipitation had fallen on snow, it would have been OK, but it sure didn’t.

“Merritt was evacuated earlier this year with the fires and for a lot of people it was a bad deja-vu.”

Jenny’s own family and that of her sister are now bunked in with their parents, dividing their time in the house and in three travel trailers on the property. They set up a makeshift chicken coop and the chickens continue to lay eggs, an unexpected bonus considering fresh dairy products, fruit and vegetables are in short supply.

Initially, only 2,000 of Merritt’s 7,000 residents were told to leave but by Monday afternoon when the water and sewage treatment plant shut down, the entire city was evacuated. The players have found new billet homes in Kamloops. Astorino is living with head coach and general manager Dave Chyzowski, his wife Cindy and Cents players Deegan Mofford, Ryan Mulrenin, Keegan Maddocks, Will Bowman and Connor Farren.

“I think he’s a bit sick of us, but he’s happy he’s taking care of us,” said Astorino. “It’s a pretty good setup for all of us.”

Needless to say, the Chyzowskis’ grocery bill has skyrocketed, and neighbours are pitching in to help, delivering them some food. Dave says he likes to cook and with that many mouths to feed, one meal and the preparation and cleanup involved just flows into the next one.

“We’ve got six boys eating six meals a day, but they’re really good kids so it makes it a lot easier,” said Dave Chyzowski. “It’s a full-time job, but it’s good.”

Like the Pierces, this is the second crisis the Chyzowskis have been hit with in five months. During the wildfires that threatened parts of Kamloops this past summer, they were evacuated from their home on Juniper Ridge southeast of downtown on July 1st.

“It’s been an unfortunate series of events, not just for us but for the people of Merritt, starting with the fires in the summer, it’s been a crazy, crappy year,” said Dave Chyzowski. “The ranchers in Merritt lost a lot of their cattle and livestock in the fires and now this, they’ve lost it through the flooding. Somebody’s picking on them right now.

“Between COVID, the fires and now the floods, this is the third time our province has been in a state of emergency. That’s called a natural-disaster hat trick.”

Chyzowski worries, with winter approaching, if the flooded houses in Merritt are not dried out quickly, frigid temperatures will turn that water to ice and cause more irreparable damage.

“Now it’s freezing at night and we’ve got a bunch of snow and if they don’t clean it up ASAP it’s going to get even worse and more dangerous,” he said. “The whole entire town, there’s no sewer, no fresh water and there are some people who stayed behind and they can’t use their toilets or their shower. I talked to a couple police officers and they said if you try to flush your toilet it’s going into their drinking water.

“It’s so sad, I’ve seen pictures of the city and you don’t even recognize stuff anymore. Water is equally as damaging as fire. I just hope Mother Nature doesn’t kill everybody by dropping the temperatures down to minus-15 or -20 at night. That would just put a nail in the last part of the coffin.”

The Cents been practicing at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops where the WHL Blazers play, and the ice time is more expensive than what they pay in Merritt. Greg Kozoris has offered the team use of his Acceleration-Kozoris Strength & Conditioning gym in Kamloops free of charge. Three of their games have been postponed and they have no idea when the schedule will resume or where they will be playing home games. The team and the BCHL are discussing the possibilities of finding a neutral-site arena for home games. Fortunately, the Cents’ home rink at Nicola Valley Arena was not flooded, but with much of the city’s infrastructure in ruins they could be facing more delays before they can return.

The community-owned Cents are still looking for their first win of the season and have just one point from an overtime loss to show for their first 13 games. Despite their losing record, the team is a source of pride and Jenny wants to see that continue through this latest crisis.

“In a small town, having a rallying point like the Centennials is huge,” she said. “It gives our youth something to do and also gives our young hockey players something to aspire to. The Centennials organization has always been great about involving their players in our community, whether it’s volunteering, working to raise money or just being visible in our city, it’s a constant for our team and I couldn’t imagine not having them here. That would be sad.”

The Pierce family has long been associated with the Centennials. Jesse’s brothers Ben and Luke both played for the team. They renovated their basement last year and built an extra room just so they could grant their kids’ wish and billet a player. Astorino has endeared himself to the family, but now Jenny doubts she will be able to have the Prince George minor hockey product around for the rest of his final season of junior eligibility.

“I feel bad terrible that Blake is in Kamloops, he’s a part of our family now and this is the second year we’ve billeted him and now he’s not with us at a traumatic time,” said Jenny. “I’m not sure he realizes the severity of our home. Where his bedroom and his space is, that doesn’t exist anymore.

“He's so kind and such a likeable guy and we’d sure love to have him back, but without having all of our house intact I don’t think we’ll be able to. I don’t think my kids realize that and when we all wrap our heads around that it’s going to be heartbreaking. We really lucked out with Blake.”

Jesse Pierce is a helicopter pilot who has been working overtime dealing with emergencies brought on by the flood that has also swamped Princeton and Abbotsford. The rainstorm has destroyed part of the bridge in Merritt over Coldwater River and took out entire sections of Highway 8 west of the city. He flew over his neighbourhood on Monday and took photos which show his house and Merritt Secondary School across the street completely surrounded by water. According to Jenny, the high school will remain functional but nearby Merritt Central Elementary School has suffered significant damage.

“It’s unfathomable, and you start to think about what you left behind, stuff that may be irreplaceable,” said Jenny. “But as I sit around with my family and my pets, then you also realize that’s just stuff and I have what I need.”

Jenny is an instructor at Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and the campus is also above the flood plain and was undamaged, but the students have been displaced, with many now living in hotels in other communities. She says many of them do not have computers and she wonders how they will complete the semester with final exams upcoming in a few weeks.

The authorities on Sunday began allowing escorted visits for Merritt residents to allow them to grab some of their belongings. Some of the Pierce’s neighbours ignored the evacuation order and chose to stay behind to protect livestock and watch flooded properties. Now that the flood water is receding, friends, family and strangers are banding together to help with cleanup efforts, operating pumps to clear flooded basements and mopping up the mud and water that seeped into the houses. It’s dirty, messy work and it’s cold. Some of those involved are separated from their families and when they do get home they have no running water in which to bathe themselves and no hot dinners waiting for them, but they are still willing to pitch in.

The Pierces have a wood stove, which is being used to dry out the house, but most Merritt homes rely exclusively on natural gas furnaces that need electrical power to operate. Like most everybody else in the community, their house insurance does not cover them for overland flooding and their policy only covers what is considered seepage from drains backing up. They will apply for disaster relief but are not sure what that will mean to them.

“I am very thankful that we will be able to rebuild over time what we had,” said Jenny. “So many people lost everything. Entire homes floated down the river. Neighbourhoods are gone and the river now takes a path down roads instead of its original channel.

“It’s been such an emotional six days but there’s been some real highlights. When you have some friends and family and people you’ve just met help you, it’s heartwarming.”