Grocery store shelves in B.C. picked clean as flooding cuts off major transport routes

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Shoppers at the SuperStore in Kamloops, B.C., were met with empty shelves on Nov. 16. The B.C. Interior community is housing many evacuees from Merritt, a 90-minute drive south.Dennis Owen/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s retail industry is scrambling to move goods from Alberta to parts of British Columbia, where many consumers are stocking up on groceries and other household items after flooding cut off major trade corridors in and out of Vancouver.

Retail chains are altering their transportation strategies with plans to send trucks westward from Alberta, compared with the normal pattern of sending trucking goods eastward from Vancouver warehouses to the Fraser Valley and Interior.

“There’s one grocer that supplies most of British Columbia from Calgary. So they won’t be having problems getting stuff to the Interior, but they’d have to send any trucks headed for Vancouver Island through Washington State,” said Greg Wilson, the Retail Council of Canada’s director of government relations in British Columbia.

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Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Minister of Public Safety, cautioned against hoarding. “Yes, we have routes that are challenged, but you know what? There are large areas of the province where those routes are not compromised and supplies are going to get through,” he said.

Mr. Wilson said hoarding results in shortages at stores, whether it’s toilet paper or salt, and such consumer behaviour would prolong efforts to ensure grocery shelves are fully stocked.

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“One thing you would hope we’d have learned a lesson in the beginning of the pandemic, but I don’t think we did – panic-buying wasn’t helpful and it also wasn’t necessary. You don’t need a year’s worth of toilet paper,” he said.

  • RV trailers burn in a storage yard after rainstorms caused widespread flooding and landslides in Abbotsford, B.C.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

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Mr. Wilson said he has seen photos on social media that show empty store shelves in B.C. Interior communities such as Kamloops, which is housing many evacuees from Merritt, a 90-minute drive south.

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Kamloops isn’t cut off, but all of Merritt had evacuation orders on Monday, after record-setting rainfall flooded the community, triggered mudslides and washouts on highways and rail lines in and out of Vancouver.

The power was still out in Hope when Julie Kwa opened her convenience store, Bee’s Market, mid-morning on Monday, but she and her husband wanted to offer food with nutritional value to travellers who had just spent a cold night stranded in their vehicles.

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“One customer told me she didn’t drink any water and she didn’t eat anything while stuck in the car – she bought everything,” Ms. Kwa told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday over the phone in between serving customers.

Within three hours that day, all the milk, cheese and bread had been sold, she said. She is still selling soda pop, candy, cigarettes and lottery tickets, and has no idea when she can restock her shelves.

She said she has not heard from her local cheese supplier, and Coca-Cola has told her more of its products won’t be coming until the TransCanada Highway is reopened to truck traffic from Abbotsford to the west.

The shelves in a convenience store in Hope, B.C., were emptied by motorists stranded due to highway closings.Handout

She said she usually buys her bread from Costco and milk from the local grocery stores, but the megastore is unreachable due to the highways being severed and all the shelves in her town are barren of these staples.

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On Wednesday, the District of Hope announced that the provincial emergency services agency would deliver more meals via helicopter that day for any of the thousand or more stranded motorists who wanted to use reception centres at a local church and high school.

During a news conference that same day, B.C. Premier John Horgan declared a provincial state of emergency.

“Please do not hoard items. What you need, your neighbours need as well,” Mr. Horgan said.

Feyza Sahinyazan, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s business school who studies supply chains, said Metro Vancouver will have shortages of certain foods in the coming weeks, but these items should be replenished relatively soon from alternate routes.

The fruits and vegetables eaten on Canada’s West Coast are largely imported through the Port of Vancouver, Dr. Sahinyazan said. The rural parts of Abbotsford under water are home to a sizable number of chicken and dairy farms, but she could not predict how the flooding would affect the supply of these commodities.

Mr. Farnworth said the B.C. government is working closely with energy distributors to ensure gasoline and other fuel supplies don’t run out.

Vancouver International Airport said on Wednesday it has sufficient aircraft fuel inventory to meet short-term demand. However, it’s monitoring supplies to assess and respond to possible long-term impact.

Community members band together to rescue stranded cattle from farms after rainstorms caused flooding and landslides in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Mayor Henry Braun is calling on the province for help, as an imminent failure of a pump station is anticipated to worsen the existing flooding conditions.

With a report from Emma Graney

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