The Village of Fort Simpson is preparing for the breakup of the Mackenzie and Liard rivers and potential flooding after experiencing a historic influx of water last year.
In 2021, much of the community evacuated as the Mackenzie rose as high as 16.7 metres — well above the 15-metre threshold where water begins to inundate the community.
The breakup season in the village usually begins around the first week of May with the breaking of the Liard River. The pushing of ice and water into the Mackenzie River in front of Fort Simpson Island leads to rising water levels and a flood threat to communities along the big river.
Mayor Sean Whelly said in an April 6 interview that although the village’s emergency management organization is still reviewing data, the municipality is trying to be better prepared after last year.
“We’re hoping to see more (data) as we make our emergency plans, but we are kind of going on the assumption that we’re going to experience some level of flooding in Fort Simpson this year,” he said. “We’re committed to doing a lot more planning ahead of time this year — working with government departments here, working with MACA (Municipal and Community Affairs) in the community on what’s going on and being open to a lot more feedback from residents. We want to make sure we’ve thought of everything as much as we can.”
Whelly noted that although Great Slave Lake has not reached the historic levels of last year, it still appears to be higher than normal and snow pack melt is expected to be above average.
“While the lake levels may be down a couple of metres from historic levels last year, it doesn’t mean a whole lot if we have a fast spring melt and if there is lots of water to be melted up in the mountains,” he said. “The snowfall is worrying, as is the slightly delayed onset of warmer weather. March was cold. Everyone has theories, but we have been warned by the GNWT that we are at high risk of flooding. ”
Senior administrative officer Kevin Corrigan said one core challenge after last year is improving communication and letting residents know that they need to be equipped and ready in the event of a major flood.
Village staff are conducting a survey with residents in the coming weeks to get a sense of who will be willing to evacuate during a flood emergency and who will choose to stay behind and camp.
The municipality’s resources to help those who choose to stay behind are limited.
“If someone wants to camp, they need to be prepared to take care of themselves,” Corrigan advised. “We cannot take care of everyone who wants to camp. We cannot provide warm tents. We cannot provide essential care for every single person if they all want to be taken care of. It’s just not feasible. It’s not possible.”
Efforts are being finalized to log resources and supplies among the local municipal, territorial and Indigenous governments to be aware of what can be provided to residents in an emergency situation.
“Right now we have maybe a handful of (pup) tents left over from last year,” Corrigan said. “We can buy a bunch more tents and sleeping bags… it’s something that we can find in the budget under protective services if council wants us to spend some money, get some camping equipment and store it away safely.”
Corrigan said it’s important for people to “be responsible for yourself” and evacuate by plane if it’s possible.
“I think that message didn’t go out last year and that was one of the biggest failings on our part, which was to get that message. Different people had different expectations,” he said.
The village’s ‘tent city’ emergency camp for evacuees worked out well, according to Corrigan, but there are preparations to establish at least one backup location, as necessary.
The village will also have a protective services director in place, which wasn’t the case last year. That individual will be designated to help coordinate the flood emergency response.
Whelly said that one of the big impacts of flooding last year was houses experiencing sewer backups. To avoid that problem this year, the municipality will be giving away backfill valves and plugs.
Jay Boast, MACA spokesperson, stated that the department will be holding a media briefing in the coming days regarding the 2022 flood season.