A community in the agricultural heartland of the NWT is facing tough choices following historic flooding.
In May, a number of areas in the South Slave were inundated during one of the worst natural disasters in living memory. Paradise Valley, a community located halfway between Enterprise and Hay River where a lot of the territory’s produce, eggs and livestock is grown, was one of the most severely affected areas.
Now its residents are facing a long and expensive road to recovery.
After watching dramatic video of houses, greenhouses and fields overwhelmed by water, longtime resident Evelyn Coleman said they were lucky the river didn’t burst its bank at 3 a.m.
“All that would have remained would have been bodies floating,” she said
She and her husband Pat have owned property in Paradise since 1992, “and it is the place we feel the most grounded,” she said.
Over the last decade, the couple has seen a number of young families settle in the community to start businesses and work in agriculture, on some of the best farmland in the territory. But now much of that work has been undone.
“Pat and I just watched 30 years of our lives go down the river,” she said.
“One challenge I have is how I’m expected to rebuild in an area where the water was nine feet high and rushing across the property for three and a half days,” she continued. “I really don’t think people in town understand what happened in the valley at all.”
Bhreagh Ingarfield and her husband Thomas Whittaker purchased a home in Paradise Valley last year with plans of opening a small bed and breakfast, building a greenhouse and raising Karelian bear dogs. Their business was scheduled to open this fall.
“It pushed our budget, but it was worth it to pursue our dreams,” she said.
But after this past flood season, Ingarfield is weighing her options. She doesn’t know if they’ll be able to start the business anymore.
“We can’t afford to abandon our mortgage or move to a safer area, but if we stay, we might end up regular victims,” she said. “What are the alternatives for us?”
A pressing concern for Ingarfield is the destruction of their detached garage which was supposed to house their kennel. The garage is not considered part of their home so it’s not eligible for federal flood relief funding.
“Our own local and territorial government needs to stand up and fight hard against this meaningless rule that is biased against the reality of rural Canadians,” she said. “I guess that is what happens when folks who live in cities are making up rules with regards to disaster assistance.”
The community, located on an arc-shaped curve of the Hay River, sustained massive damage as residents were ordered to evacuate because of dramatically rising waters.
Many farm animals died as a result of the disaster, said Ingarfield. One farmer lost his entire herd of 13 cows, another lost a number of chickens and sheep. On another farm a greenhouse was destroyed, though a second one survived.
Paradise Valley was also home to many acres of berry farms, a Bible camp, vegetable fields and campgrounds, many of which were under several metres of water, she added.
“For myself, and many of the folks in Paradise Valley, one of the biggest challenges is how we move forward,” said Ingarfield. “The flooding was catastrophic and unprecedented. Not only did we have high water, we had five days of that same high water sweeping over our properties and through our homes and businesses.”
Flood relief funding
The GNWT has announced that residents of Hay River and the K’atl’odeeche First Nation reserve can now qualify for extra money to help cover the cost of flood damage.
Under the new rules of the territory’s Disaster Assistance Policy (DAP), the highest amount paid out for the replacement of a home or business destroyed by floods is being increased to $240,000 from $100,000, said Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Shane Thompson during a news conference last week.
Those who qualify can receive an extra $75,000 for pre-approved flood mitigation measures – such as raising a home or installing water-resistant building materials.
But Ingarfield expressed hesitancy about rebuilding her home in a possibly flood-prone area.
“The government is quite literally insisting that we rebuild our homes in an area of uncertainty,” she said. “We are proud, independent folk out here. We want to invest in our homes, our farms, and our livestock smartly – ensuring that we definitely aren’t putting ourselves or the community in this position again.”
She wants the government to invest in flood mitigation projects to help prepare the community for extreme flooding events in the future, including retaining walls along the high side of the bank, berms and trees.
The flooding also cut the community off from crucial road access.
The Town of Hay River has scrapped a $110,000 plan to realign a roughly 200-metre stretch of Paradise Road, which connects the community to Highway 2, after it was seriously damaged in the flood.
The Department of Infrastructure has helped the town build a temporary road, the Paradise Garden Access Road, said Sarah McLeod, a spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure in an email.
“The original access road was situated close to the river bank and was threatened by erosion,” she stated. “The new road alignment was moved from the river bank towards private property and built closer to the property line to help reduce the impacts from potential future river bank erosion. The Town of Hay River delineated the property lines and worked with local residents to resolve property issues.”
The town worked with a consultant to design the temporary road, she said, while the Department of Infrastructure built it. Construction is now complete and project clean-up is in progress.
While Ingarfield is “certainly happy to have a road again,” she said there was a “major” lack of consultation with residents regarding its construction.
“We understand the need for the access road was severe,” she said. “But there was certainly enough time to schedule a one-hour meeting. Because of this lack of consultation, culverts that provide drainage for spring runoff, and water access for fields, gardens and livestock, were torn up and built over.”
Compounding the communication problem is that almost two months after the disaster, telephone and internet services are still “weak to non-existent in Paradise,” she said, and Northwestel has informed residents that they may not be back up until next year.