The Town of Fort Smith scrambled to accommodate evacuees of the flood disaster that struck Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River earlier this month, and municipal leaders say they’re pleased with efforts made to help those in need.
There were 133 evacuees who arrived in Fort Smith aboard four flights, according to the Government of the Northwest Territories.
A fifth flight landed in Hay River.
Fort Smith Mayor Lynn Napier said May 16 that the first week of fallout from the flood was “busy and crazy” for town staff, territorial employees and other workers directly involved.
Normally, Yellowknife or Hay River would be the first option for Dehcho evacuees but the capital city has been dealing with a COVID outbreak and Hay River had its own evacuation at Vale Island, making Fort Smith “the logical place to come.”
“We are glad to provide our support knowing that in in the North this is how communities are and that it could be us evacuating next year,” Napier said. “It is much like breaking down in your car on the highway. It could easily be yourself in that situation and you would want someone to help you. Whatever we can do to make people feel comfortable, we will do it.
During the town’s May 11 municipal and community services committee meeting, senior administrative officer Cynthia White provided mayor and council with an update, noting that the town had never been “an evacuation site for anybody” and wasn’t prepared for the influx of people.
Only on the day that a state of emergency was declared in Fort Simpson did the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs contact the town, explaining the need for shelter space.
Complications existed. The Fort Smith Community and Recreation Centre has been undergoing major renovations and could not provide emergency shelter.
“Public health restrictions with COVID-19 also meant that the people brought in couldn’t be housed there, ” White said.
Many of the evacuees were lodged in the Fort Smith Centennial Arena and given cots and blankets. As of May 17, there were about a dozen people staying at the arena.
The town also connected with Aurora College to put evacuees in the school’s residential units. Many of those people were high-priority, such as Elders, or required home care assistance.
Jeff O’Keefe, Aurora College’s vice-president of student affairs, said as of May 17 there were 35 people in 18 residence units.
“I think it was definitely beneficial to the community that we were able to do that, but it was due to a matter of timing too,” he said, pointing out that not many students were occupying the residential units at the time. “Not all times of the year would it be an option, but most of the academic year was done and so housing (evacuees) was a little bit more possible than other times.”
Napier said the town can accommodate 200 people in the case of an emergency, not counting what individual homes can offer.
Churches and non-government organizations
Napier and White also acknowledged residents who have come forward to quickly provide food, donations and, in some cases, shelter.
Businesses and non-governmental organizations like churches also helped.
The St. Joseph Cathedral Parish, which usually runs a thrift store for a few hours on Saturday afternoons, opened every afternoon for a full week in case that evacuees needed clothing or other goods.
Father Cornelius Ngurukwem said his church had welcomed evacuees from Fort Simpson, including Father MacLeen Anyanwu of Fort Simpson’s Sacred Heart Parish. The two oversaw a service on the morning of May 16.
”We have been trying to make sure we assist and give hospitality,” Ngurukwem said. “We make sure the thrift store is open for those who want a peek and we did see a good number drop in to check what they might like.”
Items given out included clothes, shoes and other things that could assist the evacuees’ temporary living situation, Ngurukwem said.
He added that he also provides “spiritual care” and meets with people sheltering to pray with them and offer words to lift their spirits
“I think that God wants us to support people in times of difficulty and to offer words of encouragement in times like these,” he said, noting that people have been appreciative of the aid, physical and spiritual. “It is not easy for people to live there outside the comfort of their homes.”