Garth Carman with a fostered cat in his garage on May 11, before the evacuation. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin RadioCaitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published 10:28 May 13, 2022

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

At 11:13pm in Hay River and K’atl’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories, on nightstands and in pockets across town, phones began sounding the rhythmic, grating drone that had become all too familiar. 

Wednesday night’s warning was the most serious yet: in a couple of hours, an entire town had become a flood zone. All residents, not just those in certain areas, were advised to evacuate immediately.

Huge quantities of rushing water and chunks of ice descended from 10 kilometres upstream, where ice jams had broken and begun moving at Kátł’odeh Bridge earlier on Wedneday afternoon.

As water reached another ice jam outside downtown Hay River that evening, the emergency became a flash flood.

Flooding in Hay River.Édith Vachon-Raymond

Garth Carman, getting ready for bed, went to the garage to check on the cats he was fostering for evacuees. The sound he heard outside was ominous.

“You could hear the river. It was the scariest sound in the world,” he said.“You could hear this roar – it sounded like a jet taking off – of the ice grinding. You could hear popping, and it was the trees snapping, like popcorn popping on a stove but super loud, as the ice just snapped them off.

“And then the sirens started going, and through it you could still hear that roar. That roar and the popping… it shook you to your core. It was something I’ll never forget.”

In the eerie twilight unique to springtime in the Northwest Territories, when the evening darkness isn’t quite deep enough, the overall effect was uncanny.

“It was the sound of the apocalypse,” said Carman. “It was terrible.”

Within minutes, lights appeared in the windows of the houses all along Robin Crescent, on the northern side of Hay River’s new town, closer to Vale Island.

Carman, who had rushed back inside, quickly took stock of what he and his wife would need to do before escaping. Outside, the order to evacuate came over loudspeakers, accompanied by what sounded like air raid sirens.

“I’m ashamed to say it caught us off-guard,” said Carman. “We were kind-of complacent, being so far from the river. We didn’t think it would ever really affect us.”

Carman and his wife began grabbing passports and other important documents and making makeshift carriers for his three cats. Those who had left cats in his care came by as quickly as they could to collect them.

“We didn’t really know what to do after that because we hadn’t thought of it. It was such an abstract thought, being evacuated from here.”

They joined what was quickly becoming a convoy on the Hay River Highway and ended up at their daughter’s house, near the golf club farther south. On Thursday morning, he returned home to see how things were going.

For now, Carman’s home remains unscathed, but he says streets to the north and east of him, where Hay River meets the West Channel, “look very bad.” Since his return, the water has risen only slightly, but he knows the danger is far from over.

“Usually, there’s a big push and water comes up and then it goes down relatively quickly. For it to stay high for as long as it has is worrisome and quite bizarre,” he said.“But I mean, there’s billions of gallons of water coming from Alberta, and it’s going somewhere. So it’s either going across someone’s property or it’s going into the lake, but it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t stop for anything, really.”

Less than 36 hours earlier, residents of Hay River’s Old Town on Vale Island were being urged to evacuate to the new town. The construction of the new town, which began in 1964 after Hay River’s legendary 1963 flood, was meant to solve the recurring problem of flooding on the island by moving residents elsewhere. But as of Thursday afternoon, residents in Old Town said their situation appeared to have stabilized, though services like power had been compromised.

“That’s the sort of random thing of the ice breaking, you never really know where it’s going to jam up, and where it’s going to overflow,” said Carman.

“It’s a big river. I mean, the fact that Paradise Gardens flooded, that’s even more unbelievable than Hay River flooding. It’s crazy.”

Carman and his wife are feeling relatively lucky.

“I don’t want to sound like we’re hard done by or anything, because we’ll get out of this fine,” he said.

“We really feel for those that have lost so much and still can’t get back to their houses. I can’t imagine the worry of having everything you own underwater, frozen, washing away… it’s terrible.”

Darlene Lamb is the unofficial spokesperson for Hay River spring breakup. On Facebook, hundreds of people followed and expressed appreciation for her photos, video and live updates as the crisis unfolded. Lamb first knew something was going very wrong when, on Wednesday night, she and a friend were responding to a request to see how far the ice was moving.

“We could hear the ice through the trees. We could hear it breaking trees,” she said.

Returning to Riverview Drive, where she had been staying, she could hear the order to evacuate echoing off the high school building and colliding with the wail of ambulances.

“We drove past the drug store and headed toward the liquor store and the road cut off – all we could see was water and ice. We veered by the quay, and around in front of Northmart on the main road there, and we could see water all the way up to the store.”

Lamb raced to collect friends and family members and, with no supplies or extra clothes, started driving to safety. Escaping to higher ground was the first instinct, but there was nowhere in Hay River to run to. The entire town is at the same low elevation, including the building the town had planned to use as an evacuation centre.

“We didn’t know what to do next. We were sitting there, by the caboose, trying to figure that out,” Lamb said, using the Hay River nickname for Chamber Park. “And then [a town alert] said we should go to Enterprise.”

Lamb described a line of cars, “all full of people going to Enterprise, not knowing what they’re going to do there or what’s going on.”

Upon arrival, she and others found all hotel rooms booked. She and friends sat in a parking lot, calling hotels in High Level (also booked) and Yellowknife (unable to get through). By then, it was 1:30am. She considered how it would feel to find the one gas station between Hay River and Yellowknife closed for the night with an empty tank, no phone service and the temperature dropping. (In the event, the gas station remained open throughout the night.)

Finally, a friend managed to get through to an uncle who had a free house in Fort Smith. By the time they were able to sleep, it was 8am.“But I’m up again, because I’m getting constant calls and messages. People wanting information,” she said the next day. “People not knowing what to do, scared.”

Lamb says Fort Smith has been “very welcoming,” offering rooms for the displaced and opening up its thrift store to anyone needing clothes. For her part, Lamb is working on coordinating supplies to those who need them. She describes one woman she knows, a young mother, who left town on her own in a panic with three small children and no milk, diapers or supplies.“

Some left with nothing, some don’t have enough money to pay their way. I just want to make sure people don’t go without,” she said.

After evacuating from Vale Island earlier in the week, Beatrice Lepine was staying at a motel along the highway outside town with her brother and two dogs. She woke up to the alert message and sirens.A man outside the motel began driving in circles around the building, waving and yelling at people to evacuate, telling them the town was flooding.

“It panicked people. It totally panicked people,” Lepine said. “People were sleeping by then. It was like a nightmare. People were running to get their stuff, it was chaos in the parking lot. There were Elders, grandmothers, a woman with small children, all distraught and frantic. A couple of us tried to calm them down. But it was impossible. So they left and I don’t know where they went.

“A group of young people were out here in the parking lot as well, and they’re looking at social media, and they’re telling one another this or that place just flooded. ‘Look, this person’s house just floated away.’ It was awful.”

By 3am, Lepine, on one of the upper floors of the motel, decided the building was elevated enough and far enough away from downtown that she felt safe enough to go back to sleep. When she woke, stories of fear and desperate rescues reached her almost immediately.

“I got a call from one of the Elders at Whispering Willows who had almost drowned the night before,” she said, referring to a seniors’ complex in the town.

As the building began to flood, Lepine said, the man – in is late eighties – got in his car with his dog and began trying to drive away.

“Suddenly, a surge of water came and carried his car. It floated for a ways, he told me, and then it began to sink,” said Lepine. “He rolled his window down and he’s a big man, but he got out through the window. But his dog was still inside the car. So he’s left standing up to his chest in water.”

A passerby spotted the man and waded in to help, and then went back for his terrier, which by this time was treading water as the car began to fill.

“He barely made it out,” Lepine said. “What if he couldn’t get the window open? What if someone hadn’t seen him there? I was so upset when he told me about this.”

This is far from Lepine’s first flood. Aged 10, she lived through the famous 1963 flood and evacuation. About every decade since, there has been at least one severe ice jam in Hay River. What happened this week felt unlike anything she had experienced before.

“This was a different affair. I’ve never experienced chaos before in past floods,” she said. “It was always, well, you get off the island and you come up here, stay with friends or whatever. But this was chaotic. It still is. I don’t know what’s to come and I just have to wait it out.”

At the evacuation centre inside Yellowknife’s multiplex, one exhausted Kátł’odeeche First Nation resident – who didn’t wish to give her name – described driving all night to reach safety in the city. With tears in her eyes, the woman said she had returned to her home at 9:30pm on Wednesday to check the property, having chosen to stay in Hay River’s new town with her son since Monday.

By 11pm, they were on their way back from the First Nation to the new town.

“We had just gotten to the winter crossing and the ice was moving, and the water was just coming up. The ice and the water was level with the bank and it was pushing the trees down, it was just snapping the trees down. It was like it was in the movies,” she said.

She was “overwhelmed” as she watched the water destroy the land around her.

“It’s very difficult to think about how our people are going to go home and see the devastation of our home and what’s left of it. I don’t wish this upon anybody,” she said.

“Of all the years I’ve lived in Hay River, I’ve never, ever seen this. I’ve never seen this much water take over our community and our town.

“It’s going to be a very long time before we get back on our feet.”

Even before Wednesday’s flash flood, the week leading up to it had already devastated many residents.

“I’m thinking of the market in Paradise Gardens,” said Scott Clouthier in a conversation on Monday, with no knowledge of what was yet to come.

“Riverside Growers just built a brand new greenhouse that’s now got two or three feet of water flowing through it, and it’s hard to imagine that is not going to be a catastrophic loss to their business. The same thing with Greenwood Gardens. They’ve lost everything. I know the Benoits were able to evacuate their horses but they had to leave their cows.

“People from Hay River are quite resilient, but I think deep down, especially once people are able to really survey the damage with their own eyes, I think there are going to be a lot of emotions over what’s happened.

“It’s beyond the worst-case scenario. If you asked Hay River to imagine the worst possible outcome of this breakup season, I don’t think they would have guessed what we’ve seen so far.”

Megan Miskiman contributed reporting.

This item reprinted with permission from Cabin Radio, Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories