Original Published 10:40 May 14, 2022

By Ollie Williams and Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson believes the town’s evacuation shows the Northwest Territories may now need a new approach to flooding.

For the second successive year, an N.W.T. regional hub has become a disaster site. Fort Simpson’s evacuation in 2021 displaced 700 people. At least the same number have so far registered as evacuees this year.

The MLA spent some of Friday helping to clear a path through the remnants of the flood, which include large blocks of ice strewn along Hay River and Kátł’odeeche First Nation roads.

Speaking on Friday afternoon, he endorsed the Town of Hay River’s request that residents be patient and wait to return while emergency and recovery crews complete rescues or fix damaged services like power, water and sewer.

“The road to the Old Town is going to need an engineer checking the integrity of that part of the highway. The rail tracks is another thing, some of them have been compromised or washed out from underneath,” Simpson said.

“Now that this part’s over, the next part is critical to make sure the place is safe for people to go back to. So far nobody, I don’t think, has really been been hurt. No lives lost. We’ve been pretty lucky here.”

Evacuation and recovery efforts are being led by the communities with territorial support. 

On Friday, Simpson wondered whether this week’s evacuation order – which applies to around 4,000 Hay River residents and West Point or Kátł’odeeche First Nation members – will force a rethink of how that response is structured.

“After all this, they’ve got to do a post-mortem on it,” he said.

“This is the second year where there’s been major flooding and this is something that we’re going to be running into every year. Maybe we have to find a different way to deal with it.”

Simpson drew a comparison with wildfires. While municipalities hold responsibility for some aspects of wildfire prevention and mitigation, like firesmarting within their boundaries, the territorial government runs wildfire response during the summer season and the crews are territorial employees.

“We don’t ask the town to deal with forest fires,” Simpson said. 

“Maybe we have to put flooding in that same category as well.”

The N.W.T. government is still in the process of reviewing last year’s flooding in Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River. (Jean Marie River remains on flood alert this year.)

One part of that review focuses on “assessing the control, coordination and understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the territorial government, community governments, small businesses and residents during an emergency.” 

Another part will assess “the overall effectiveness of the emergency response, from preparations and readiness through to the evacuation and hosting process.”

Simpson told Cabin Radio he had elected to stay in Hay River once the evacuation order went out.

“Things unravel so, so quickly. People have to make decisions very quickly. I stayed here because people do call me and try to get information or voice their concern or frustrations,” he said.

“My house, I got a little bit of water but I’ve had power, I’ve had sewer and, touch wood, I haven’t had any problem with that so far. But I was just talking to somebody and their basement has got two feet of sewer in it. You just don’t know what’s happening, especially when the sewer is being compromised as well.

“Somebody has got to send some people in here and provide the qualified resources that we need to deal with some of this stuff right now.”

Communities still unsafe

In a Friday update, the Town of Hay River said a full assessment of damage will be complete by Sunday but there is no guarantee any residents will be allowed to return at that time. The town has said residents will only be able to return once municipal services like sewer systems are operational.

A Saturday update is expected at around noon.

Chief April Martel of the Kátł’odeeche First Nation said overnight the reserve remained unsafe for anyone to return.

Martel said road conditions were being assessed, as were some homes and offices. 

“Overflow of ice and water on the reserve is still a major concern,” she wrote.

“We are working hard to make sure you can all come home soon.”

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