The Village of Fort Simpson reached a turning point on Friday and called for military assistance after reports that water levels climbed to an estimated 16.2 metres, according to community leaders.
Mayor Sean Whelly told NNSL Media Friday night that concerns about flooding to homes and businesses forced the community to ask Premier Caroline Cochrane to ask for assistance from the armed forces.
“The Premier offered to get that going with the federal government and I’m thinking we need approximately 30 members of the military,” Whelly said. “I’m asking to have the Rangers or a combination of the army and the Rangers.
“As soon as the water goes down and it is safe on Fort Simpson island and all hands are on deck, we are going to need a lot of equipment and the army might be able to help with that.”
The idea is to have extra hands that can provide needed equipment like pumps, generators, fans, dehumidifiers and other materials to help salvage what is left of homes and other buildings in his community.
The mayor has also made the request that military personnel will be based in Fort Simpson so that there is no delay in serving the community.
Whelly said after a week of evacuation and a state of emergency, the outlook has turned grim.
“If the water would have dropped on Thursday, we would have had damage (to homes and buildings) but maybe not to the extent we do now,” he said.
“People on Thursday were fairly optimistic because water levels had dropped to 14.5 metres and some were beginning to ask me when we could go home, and if I thought the power would be on in four to five days. Up to today (Friday), we felt we had things basically under control.”
But in what turned out to be “a crushing blow,” Whelly said ice jammed past Martin River, where the river bends into an S, and the water built up behind it.
The water levels around Fort Simpson dropped about two-thirds of a metre at about 2 a.m. on Friday morning but then rapidly came back up by a metre at 7:30 a.m.
“So as everybody was waking up, the water was all around and it continued to rise into the afternoon,” Whelly said of Friday’s grim developments.
“I stopped posting pictures on Facebook myself of houses because it was not something I wanted to do to depress people in seeing the water,” he said. “There was no point showing their streets and houses. It is certainly a really tough spot we are in right now.”
The community is currently maintaining a “tent city” on high ground in the village with about 40 people camping on site.
Approximately 110 people have been evacuated out of the area, mostly to Fort Smith, with a few others in communities like Hay River and Yellowknife, said Whelly.
Others still are scattered elsewhere around the community.
“A lot are spread out in camps down the highway,” the mayor said. “Environment and Natural Resources officers visited the camps down the highway, and people are closer within the municipal boundaries and a few are inside the gun range. Some are also staying in their vehicles, to tell you the truth. I don’t think they have to, but they are doing it.”
Residents in danger
Whelly said he’s concerned about some residents who are insisting on remaining on Fort Simpson island. He pleaded with them to consider evacuating Friday night.
He estimates that there are anywhere from 12 to 42 people on the island and they remain at risk of a flash flood due to river conditions.
In a lot of cases he sympathizes that they have valid reasons to stay, including that the options of where they could be sent for shelter aren’t as pleasant as their warm beds and familiar surroundings.
“The top part of the town, which is really the part that has less people, has absorbed most of the people from the bottom part,” he explained. “There are some homes with 20 people in their yard with tents and porta potties in their yard.”
Those fortunate enough are able to stay in campers or motorhomes.
Meeting with ministers
GNWT Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie and Municipal and Community Affairs Minister Paulie Chinna flew into the community on Friday on behalf of the Premier and met with local leaders.
Whelly said his top request to Archie and Chinna had been that “evacuees are housed in the best possible conditions that the government can do.”
The village’s tent city is equipped with stoves and propane to help warm people up, but that is only for the short-term.
Over the long term, it won’t be enough, according to Whelly.
“We are going to have to address how people are being housed and what we are doing for the vulnerable and the little kids,” he said. “We can’t put them in a recreation centre with cots and we can’t have them staying in Tent City in the rain. It is very cool here tonight (Friday) and it is supposed to snow tonight.
“In the short term, recreation cots might be feasible but some of these people are more vulnerable and they have medical issues or they have kids and it makes it difficult to live in that kind of condition for very long.”
Shane Thompson, minister of Environment and Natural Resources and MLA for Nahendeh, said in an interview Thursday night that he was pleased with how the response unfolded to the first week of the emergency. He slept on the floor at his daughter’s home last week.
“The thing is the GNWT has been active as soon as the state of emergency was declared ,” he said, noting that the GNWT’s Emergency Management Organization has brought village staff and the regional territorial officials together for regular meetings.
“What people don’t understand is that there has been a plan in place since January that they have been working on. You only can do what you can do until a flood or disaster happens and your plan gets kicked in,” said Thompson.
While he acknowledges that there have been critics on social media, he said that several government and non-government organizations have “done an amazing job” and have been extremely busy trying to respond to flood-related issues in their own way. For example, he said firefighters and the community government have been assisting evacuations while teams of volunteers have been coordinating food and supplies and territorial government workers have been assessing contaminants or planning when to move into homes and buildings.
“People out on Facebook want answers right away,” he said, adding that being on social media is not productive when assisting affected families and individuals is the top priority.
In Jean Marie River’s, which has also suffered greatly due to flooding, its residents were to evacuate to Fort Simpson with Hay River as a backup. However, due to flooding in both of those communities, they were sent to Fort Providence.
“For Fort Simpson, we were supposed to be evacuated to Yellowknife but because of the COVID situation, there had to be an alternative,” Thompson said. In the village’s case, the Town of Fort Smith provided accommodations in their time of need.
Getting food and supplies
Whelly said there was a hiccup on Friday when a truckload of food supplies from Edmonton didn’t arrive as expected.
“Normally we are used to getting two large reefer (refrigerated) trucks a week from Edmonton, plus other stuff for the convenience store, ” he said. “But we’re not even near getting that amount of merchandise or foodstuff coming in.”
The food that has arrived, often from outside donors, has been placed on tables in the village’s public workshop and people are being asked to take what they need.
“There is a certain amount of rationing and we break apart coffee cans and put in baggies and limit one carton of milk per person so everybody is getting something,” said Whelly.
Seven skids of goods were brought into the community Friday afternoon from Yellowknife businesses.
Whelly said he’s grateful for the food that has come in from Yellowknife, from donors like Yk Motors, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart and Northern Meats, and the flights that have provided transportation, including Buffalo Air and Air Tindi.
Territorial and federal response
Whelly said he’s satisfied with the territorial and federal response to date.
“I have nothing bad to say about representatives of the GNWT, and they have been running as we have asked for things and we have been directed to the right people and received messages of support,” he said. “Right from the beginning, Premier Caroline Cochrane phoned and let me know, and so did Paulie Chinna, that they were available, and to call if we needed help.”
As for the federal government, Whelly said he has been in contact with Michael McLeod, member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, who has said the federal government will respond with anything that is asked in terms of assistance.
On Friday night, Whelly said he can’t predict what the future holds. He dreads the possibility that the Mackenzie River, which hasn’t completely broken, may have more flooding in store.
“I’m just praying that the Mackenzie doesn’t come down on us right now,” he said. “Because it hasn’t let go yet, and that is a really big problem. We’re already in the worst flood in living memory and we have the Mackenzie ready to go. That could basically deepen it. I don’t care where you live on the island, if it comes down, every single place could be in water.”