PETERBOROUGH, Ont. (CP) -- Residents of this picturesque central Ontario community awoke to chaos Thursday after torrential rains turned streets into rivers, closed businesses, left cars floating in nearly a metre of water and collapsed the roof of a seniors' home.
Mayor Sylvia Sutherland and Peterborough Police Chief Terrence McLaren declared a state of emergency at about 7 a.m. after storm sewers backed up due to heavy rains that left much of the downtown core and west end of the city under water.
"It looked like you could go white-water rafting on some of the streets," Peterborough fire Chief Lee Grant told a news conference as he described the torrents of water that were racing through city streets early Thursday morning.
"You actually would be taking your life in your hands to step out on some of the streets downtown. You would not have been able to stand up; the current was moving that fast."
Fred Koster, owner of Peterborough Transmission Service, a shop about six blocks from the downtown corridor, said he's lived in the community for 35 years and has never witnessed anything so frightening.
"I was scared, to tell you the truth," Koster said. Six of his seven employees had managed to get to work and were spending much of the day bailing out the shop, he added.
"It was almost surreal to see three feet (one metre) of water rushing across the arterial streets and having to go around it."
The severe conditions were the work of the same weather system that originated in western Canada last week, pelting Edmonton with hail, and is slowly working its way east across the country.
"We are worried about small children, we are worried about seniors, we are worried about just about everyone," said Sutherland, although no injuries were reported by mid-morning.
Sutherland said it's the worst flood the city's ever endured.
"We had a major flood two years ago, this is by far worse than that," she said. "We have up to three metres of water in some places."
Monte Kwinter, Ontario's minister of community safety, and Dr. James Young, the province's commissioner of emergency management, were headed to Peterborough to start assessing the flood damage and offer advice where necessary, a spokesman for Premier Dalton McGuinty said from Toronto.
Provincial officials said declaring an emergency does not automatically provide emergency funding to help a community cope with a disaster. Peterborough council will still have to apply for the money under Ontario's disaster relief program.
Declaring an emergency does mean, however, that community officers are dispatched to the disaster to help secure sandbags and supplies for evacuation centres.
Environment Canada meteorologist Geoff Coulson said a team of researchers was headed to Peterborough to gather additional information on the rainfall.
The thunderstorm can be traced back to a storm last Sunday that caused a major flood in West Edmonton Mall, and tore up trees, hydro poles and a large metal building in Boissevain, Man.
The storm has moved slowly across the prairies and is continuing to move eastward to the Maritimes, said Coulson.
"While these events are not unheard of, they are relatively rare," he said, adding that the last major flooding in the province was 10 years ago in Harrow in southwestern Ontario when 250 millimetres of rain pounded the farm community in a short period of time.
Although Peterborough was the only area in Ontario in a state of emergency, rain also wreaked havoc in the surrounding area and other parts of the province as well as neighbouring Quebec, with severe thunderstorm expected to continue Thursday.
In North Bay, for instance, Highway 63 between the Quebec boundary and Highway 533 was closed part of Thursday due to washouts as a result of more than 70 millimetres of rain in some areas.
In Peterborough, flooding came from two major sources -- sewage backup and the overflowing of Jackson Creek.
Stores and banks along George Street, the city's main street, were closed, and in the west end of the city the main shopping mall, Lansdowne Place, was closed to business for water cleanup.
City emergency officials and the mayor were warning people to stay home, although one resident was spotted paddling a canoe and another was seen swimming across city streets.
Residents and businesses were also being urged to limit their consumption of water as the Environment Ministry was dispatching a drinking-water supervisor from its Kingston office to help health and emergency officials deal with "possible drinking-water quality challenges."
The city's sewage treatment plant is handling twice the normal volume of waste water -- 10 of the city's sewage pumping stations are under water -- and has been forced to release untreated sewage into the Otonabee River, said Art Chamberlain, a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky.
The location health unit was to issue an advisory to communities and residents downriver, including the Hiawatha First Nation aboriginal reserve, advising them to not take any weater from the river, added Chamberlain.
Grant said the biggest challenge for rescue crews early Thursday was a seniors' residence, from where some 200 people were evacuated after a section of the roof collapsed.
The seniors as well as other residents -- including homeowners and workers who managed to get to their jobs despite the wet conditions -- were being taken to an evacuation centre at Evinrude Arena.
Grant said dams have been set up around the city in an effort to stanch the flow of water, although "water is cresting most of the dams."
He said more rain was expected Thursday, a concern for officials who feared it might exacerbate the flooding and result in a longer cleanup effort.
Nancy Wright-Laking, with the City of Peterborough's emergency planning department, said the entire city was affected by the flooding.
"Most interior roads are impassable; if you go out most roads are blocked off," said Wright-Laking. It would take most of the day at least to reopened roads, she added.
Business feared the shutdown of the downtown commercial area alone would result in a loss of "millions of dollars" at a time of year when tourism in the area is at its height.