The images and footage from the areas surrounding the Whatcom Road freeway exit at this time last year were dumbfounding.
To begin with, the exit wasn’t even an exit – it transformed into an unconnected island.
The floodwaters swallowed up much of North Parallel Road and the Sumas Prairie farms to the south near the exit.
The highway itself was unrecognizable and the businesses nearby the exit were either completely underwater or on the verge of submersion.
Abbotsford’s Castle Fun Park, an iconic local spot for family fun, was among the hardest hit. The theme park had lakefront views, with the signature castle and mini-golf lighthouse still poking out of the water during the flooding.
Much of the theme park is still in recovery mode. The indoor mini-golf, which is located on the lower levels, was completely destroyed and is still being rebuilt. The batting cage, located on the west portion of the park, was also damaged from flooding.
Both the indoor mini-golf and the batting cages are still under reconstruction. A reopening date for both of those attractions has not been set.
A little farther west on North Parallel Road is the Clarion Hotel and Conference Centre.
Regarded as one of the top hotels in the community, the Clarion boasts 116 rooms and suites and more than 24,000 square feet of conference and event space. The building has been used for everything from political rallies to wedding showcases and boxing.
It has also been the traditional home of the Toys for Tots event that helps Archway Community Services provide for the less fortunate during the holiday season.
But in mid-November of 2021 it wasn’t holiday cheer on the mind of Clarion general manager Danny Crowell; it was survival – both of his guests and employees, but also of the building and business itself.
Crowell said he remembers leaving work on the evening of Nov. 15 and being well aware of the rising water levels nearby.
“I was keeping a close eye on the ditch that goes parallel to the hotel,” he said, noting that it’s a drainage ditch. “Before I left for the day I was out there with my maintenance guy and the ditch looked pretty full and was kind of teetering.”
He drove to his Vancouver home and called the hotel to get updates. It wasn’t good.
“At the front of the hotel’s main entrance there is a set of stairs that go down to Parallel Road and, when I called an hour later, the water was halfway up those stairs,” he said. “Another hour later and the water was over the stairs. About another hour later and the water was now in the lobby of our hotel.”
Crowell said, despite the advancing water, that they still had power, and emergency officials with the City of Abbotsford told them to stay open as long as that was the case. He noted that everyone was safe and accounted for in the hotel.
Crowell drove into work the next morning, but was unable to use his normal route as Highway 1 was closed before the Whatcom Road exit. Crowell had to park close to a nearby path that connects to the White Spot restaurant located at Clarion and walk his way down. Before arriving at the hotel, he stopped to look down at what he saw below.
“It was a bit of a disaster,” he said, noting he arrived at work at around 6:30 a.m. “While there was only a foot of water in the lobby, there was water three or four feet deep in the parking lots. And then, of course, all that water is going into our storage area, our maintenance shop and into the banquet area storage.”
Crowell said a service elevator that helps with food delivery and storage and a personal elevator used for the conference centre were also flooded. The bigger issue is that the mechanics to operate or fix the elevators were in the garage area and also completely underwater. Those elevators are still not yet operable.
As the day of Nov. 16 continued, the rain would not let up and that caused even more issues for Crowell and his team. Despite the encroaching water, guests remained in the hotel and that meant they had to be fed and cared for. He noted one employee literally had to swim to the hotel to help prepare food for people. Other employees continually swept water out of the lobby and other areas to keep it safe.
By the time his shift was over on Nov. 16, things were looking grim for the hotel and Abbotsford in general.
“I got home Tuesday evening (Nov. 16) and learned our water had been shut off,” he said. “The sewage was backflowing and other intersections were flooded. I know Whatcom had a big problem with that. And then the power went out and it was time to evacuate.”
Crowell, who has worked in the hotel industry for over 40 years, said it was a numbing feeling to lock the front doors of the hotel – something that is such a rarity in his profession.
“The first responders showed up shortly after our power went out and that was probably the first time in the history of the hotel that our doors were locked,” he said. “I’ve worked in 15 different hotels and never locked the front door. We were told to stay away and that our hotel was now in an evacuation zone.”
Dozens had to leave the hotel, including a handful of Abbotsford Canucks hockey players who were staying there during the season. Crowell said he was pleased that no one was hurt at his hotel during the floods but that his heart broke for the nearby farmers who were so badly hit.
As the water began to recede and several days passed, Crowell returned to the hotel but used it as a base of communications for his employees. He said several staff members live in Chilliwack, so they would have been unable to come to work regardless. He continued to send out communication notices to his employees and provide updates about what was happening at the site.
The conference centre was able to re-open on Dec. 9 and an official reopening for the hotel occurred on Feb. 10. Months of construction work and insurance helped that become possible. The damage was estimated to be about $6 to $7 million. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening saw then-mayor Henry Braun, as well as Brian Leon, president of Choice Hotels Canada, attend.
The facility went on to host the Business Excellence Awards on the evening of Feb. 10. Crowell said it was one of the most bizarre but unforgettable experiences of his career.
“It was very strange, no question,” he said. “But I’m always going to remember the way everybody pulled together and just got it done. That, to me, represents the hotel industry in a nutshell. We do whatever we have to in order to get the job done. It’s been described to me before as a duck swimming – on top of the water it looks nice and calm, but underneath you’re paddling like hell to keep afloat.”
In the months since reopening, Crowell said business is booming.
“We’re now doing better than we were in 2019,” he said. “To do the comparisons, our occupancy, our revenues, and our banquet business have almost all come back. It’s a testament to the people that work here and the job they do looking after our guests. They’re all back and we’re happy and busy as heck.”
Crowell said the success is a little bittersweet as he is set to retire in February. But every November from now on he will think back to the flood and how his hotel and the community of Abbotsford survived and then thrived.
For more, see The Abbotsford News’ special section Stronger Together. The Flood: One Year Later.
Or visit, abbynews.com/e-editions.