FREDERICTON – Flood waters continued to rise Thursday along the St. John River in New Brunswick, flooding basements, closing roads and crippling parts of the provincial capital.
Emergency officials said 460 families had registered with the Red Cross and evacuated their residences, and up to 1,300 homes were threatened by the river, which at points looked like a sprawling lake.
In Fredericton, power was shut off to a number of buildings including the legislature, where sandbags surround the Victorian-era building and generators were running sump pumps.
Schools, businesses and more than 50 roads were closed or partially blocked in the capital city and the surrounding area.
Across the street from the legislature, the landmark Lord Beaverbrook Hotel was evacuated Wednesday, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery – home to masterpieces by Salvador Dali, Botticelli and Gainsborough – has moved artworks up from the basement.
The latest reading showed the river was about 8.34 metres above sea level in Fredericton – close to the historic high of 8.61 metres, reached in 1973 when more than 400 homes and businesses were flooded, causing $12 million in damage.
“Water levels continue to rise along the entire St. John River,” the provincial government said in a statement. “Further increases are expected through (Friday), and water levels will continue to rise downstream through the weekend.”
Meanwhile, the provincial electric utility has been busy disconnecting customers, as a safety precaution.
NB Power said more than 390 customers have been disconnected – 90 per cent of them in the Fredericton and Maugerville areas.
Maugerville and Sheffield, two small communities downriver from Fredericton, have reported some of the worst flooding so far and many people have left.
But Sheffield resident David O’Brien is one of several people who decided to stay.
He said water had surrounded his house and flooded his basement – and there was no electricity.
“We may have to leave,” he said in an interview Thursday. “We’ll see what happens with the river levels later in the day.”
O’Brien said a number of his neighbours are still in their homes, protecting their properties.
“All my worldly possessions are here,” said O’Brien, whose belongings include a classic 1964 Thunderbird convertible in his garage.
“I would hate to see them going down the river.”
Provincial officials were warning those surrounded by flood waters to call 9-1-1 for assistance if they intend to leave their homes.
“Water depths can vary and currents are fast,” the province said in a release.
Karl Wilmot, a spokesman for the Emergency Measures Organization, said reports of flooded basements and road closures are coming in from all along the river, which winds from northern New Brunswick to the Bay of Fundy in the south – a 673-kilometre journey.
“It’s the same story from one community to the next, just with different levels of water and the misery it’s causing,” said Wilmot.
But Wilmot added that the weather – specifically, a lack of rain – is beginning to co-operate.
“The good weather is a godsend. It’s going to give us a respite and that is exactly what we need right now.”
No significant amount of rain is forecast in the next few days.
Driving was either impossible or very tricky in various parts of the province Thursday.
The Trans-Canada Highway from Quebec to Nova Scotia remained open, though exits near Edmunston and Sheffield were closed and water was reported on the highway at Saint-Jacques.
Route 105 – the old Trans-Canada Highway – from Fredericton southeast to Jemseg was closed to traffic.
Other road closures were reported in Bathurst, Miramichi, Saint John and Edmunston.
In the northwestern region, the rising waters closed the international bridge between Saint-Leonard, N.B., and Van Buren, Maine, on Wednesday night.
There were also reports of flooding along Route 105 in the western New Brunswick communities of Perth-Andover, Florenceville, Hartland and elsewhere.
In the northern tip of Maine, where the St. John starts, the big river crested early Thursday after hitting a record high, forcing residents to flee to higher ground as more than 100 homes flooded in the Fort Kent area.
Bruce Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said Fort Kent – population 4,200 – was spared from major damage because the water never topped a levee that protects the downtown.
About 600 people were evacuated from the area.
Also, the International Bridge between Fort Kent and Clair, N.B., held fast despite fears that the raging waters could drag it down.
Scientists described the flooding as “greater than a 100-year event,”
Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who flew from Augusta to get a look at the flood waters Wednesday, activated the National Guard and requested disaster aid from the federal government.
“We’re not through it yet,” he said. “Our first focus is on making sure people are safe.”
Evacuations also took place downstream in Van Buren and in Mattawamkeag, where the Mattawamkeag and Penobscot rivers spilled their banks.