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Flooding and mudslides cause an extreme emergency in British Columbia

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A state of emergency has been declared in the Canadian province of British Columbia after flooding and mudslides left thousands stranded. A severe storm hit on Sunday cutting off entire roads and towns and also cutting off access to the country's largest port in Vancouver. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged assistance and sent armed forces to help with recovery efforts. On the line with us now from Ottawa is Canada's minister of transport, Omar Alghabra. Minister, thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with us. What's the latest from British Columbia? What's the situation like there?

OMAR ALGHABRA: Good morning, and thank you for having me. The devastation has been massive. About 18,000 Canadians have been displaced. There've been also three losses of life. And there's been a severe impact to supply chain, including rail and surface roads. So the recovery efforts and the repair efforts are ongoing, and we are at the federal government working collaboratively with the government of British Columbia to assist those who need assistance, to make sure that everybody is able to find a safe place and at the same time work on recovering and opening up the supply chain.

MARTINEZ: Did you said that the area - is the area completely cut off from roads?

ALGHABRA: So there are some roads that...

MARTINEZ: OK.

ALGHABRA: ...Allow for emergency traffic, but there are some communities that have been completely cut off either from surface roads or rail tracks.

MARTINEZ: What about electricity or things - basic services? Is that still something that those residents can count on?

ALGHABRA: So far, the reports that I have is that some basic amenities, including power and fuel, are available. But there are risks of shortages. So we are working, as I said, with the government of British Columbia to ensure some of those supply lines are reopened as quickly as possible.

MARTINEZ: Does it look like the waters are starting to recede at least?

ALGHABRA: Yes. So the latest reports that I heard is that water is beginning to recede. Weather forecast is promising. So that will be helpful in expediting our efforts. But certainly, all hands are on deck to ensure that we help all those who need help and recover and, as I said, open up supply chains as quickly as possible.

MARTINEZ: And what is the Canadian government's first priority to send to that region?

ALGHABRA: Our first and foremost priority is the safety of the residents over there, making sure that everybody finds a safe place to stay. And second is making sure that we open up the supply chain. So we need to make sure that basic necessities - food, fuels and other important material - are able to get access to those communities.

MARTINEZ: So speaking of the supply chain, I know that flooding at the Port of Vancouver has caused significant delays. Is the port now operational?

ALGHABRA: So the port now is severely restricted because there is no rail traffic in and out of it. And there are a lot of backlogs and vessels waiting to be offloaded or unloaded. So yes, it's had a significant impact on the port traffic as we speak.

MARTINEZ: Are there any protocols in place, maybe between the U.S. and Canada, to ease things a little bit or get things moving?

ALGHABRA: We are working closely with our friends in the United States at the Department of Homeland Security. One of the options that we're working on is allowing truck drivers access through the state of Washington so truck drivers can go down south, cross the border, drive through in a parallel route and then come back up. And we're asking for some short-term measures that would suspend traditional protocols so truck drivers are able to have an easy access.

MARTINEZ: All right, that's Canadian Transportation Minister Omar Alghabra. Thank you very much.

ALGHABRA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.