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Abbotsford Police chief recalls how people banded together during the flood

‘People would sacrifice their safety and well-being’ to help others, says Mike Serr
Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr speaks at one of the many press conferences that was held during the November 2021 floods. (Abbotsford Police Department photo)

If there is one thing that stands out most for Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr about the November 2021 floods, it’s the people who banded together in a time of crisis.

The first responders who kept citizens safe.

The neighbours who helped bring stranded livestock to safety.

The volunteers who gathered to fill and place sandbags in at-risk neighbourhoods.

“It’s emotional to this day – people would sacrifice their safety and well-being because they wanted to help a neighbour or a friend. I heard and saw those stories time and time again,” he said.

Serr had just finished playing lacrosse on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021 when torrential rainfall that had begun earlier in the day continued to pound the city.

He began to hear about areas, such as Clayburn Village, that were experiencing localized flooding.

The Abbotsford Police Department, Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service (AFRS) and other first responders were at the ready as an emergency operations centre (EOC) was set up in Matsqui Centennial Auditorium and evacuation alerts were issued for several areas.

But nobody could anticipate the extent of the devastating impacts that were to come.

Monday, Nov. 15 brought rising floodwaters to the city, resulting in a state of local emergency being declared. Serr said he first realized the seriousness of the situation that evening.

“I remember staying late on Monday night and being out on the road and seeing firsthand that now it has gone from some isolated flooding to, ‘This is going to have a real provincial impact.’ ”

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Officers were being deployed throughout the city, blocking off flooding roads and making sure people were safe.

Serr ventured out that evening to deliver batteries to officers on the road whose radios were dying. As he drove east along Highway 1 towards Whatcom Road, water was starting to cover the freeway.

Serr drove as far as he could – about 300 metres from the Whatcom Road exit – and came across seven or eight semi-trucks and a couple of police cars that could go no further.

The police vehicles escorted the trucks to safety near the Sumas Way exit.

“I think we did four runs and, in the course of those runs, the water just kept getting higher and higher and higher, and it wasn’t just the height of it, but also the power of it as it was flowing,” he said.

“Every time you went, you could really just feel your truck starting to push off the road … If you ever got a tire into the mud or the dirt, you were going to flip into the median, which was completely filled.”

Serr had been unable to get the batteries to the officers, but the driver of a large tow truck volunteered to complete the task. Serr watched as the driver plowed through the water.

“You could see he was in trouble a bit, and he just made it. This was a big truck, and he was able to get the batteries to our people, and that was pretty heartwarming.”

Over the coming days, Serr and Mayor Henry Braun toured the city together daily to “get a proper assessment” of what was occurring.

Serr said he will never forget the scenes of people helping each other. He recalls standing alongside Highway 1 near a dairy farm on the south side of the freeway.

“I remember watching these boats and these ATVs moving the cattle and trying to get them onto the road and landed, watching these men and women who were absolutely shivering … They were hypothermic – the wind was so cold off that prairie,” he said.

“I just remember the hardiness, the endurance, the will … We were completely mesmerized.”

Serr also recalls the threat to Barrowtown Pump Station as surging waters coursed across Sumas Prairie after the Nooksack River in Washington state topped its banks on Nov. 16.

The pump station was in danger of complete failure. Teams of first responders, pump station workers, and volunteers placed sandbags throughout the night to form a dam to hold back the floodwaters.

“Those volunteers absolutely, in my mind, are heroes. They went over and above all night … Talking to many of them a couple of days later, they were about, ‘We did what we had to do. We’d do it again. This is what we do in our community,’ ” Serr said.

As the floodwaters abated, officers continued to block off roads that were still dangerous and had to use their discretion on who they would allow through, depending on what roads they needed to use.

Serr said some property owners became angry at the officers, which he said left him, at times, “disappointed and frustrated.”

RELATED: City of Abbotsford activates emergency operations centre due to flooding, mudslides

“We were never going to have people risk their lives when the roads were so flooded … I don’t care how high your truck is. We don’t know about the sinkholes or the stability of a road … We do not want people losing their lives.”

Serr said, once all the evacuation orders were lifted, some break-and-enters occurred at homes in the impacted areas, and officers were deployed to conduct regular patrols.

“It was absolutely devastating. You cannot go lower than to go (into the home) of somebody who has been so significantly impacted and to then victimize them further,” he said.

Serr said he is appreciative of the teamwork from all the agencies involved, including AFRS, search-and-rescue crews, the City of Abbotsford, and police from numerous other jurisdictions. He is most grateful that no lives were lost.

“This was a time when you’re proud to be a part of Abbotsford, part of the human race, just to see the incredible way people reacted,” he said.

For more, see The Abbotsford News’ special section Stronger Together. The Flood: One Year Later.

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A police vehicle heads east on Highway 1 between No. 4 and No. 3 roads on Nov. 22, 2021. (Vikki Hopes/Abbotsoford News)

Vikki Hopes

About the Author: Vikki Hopes

I have been a journalist for almost 40 years, and have been at the Abbotsford News since 1991.
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