Flooding in downtown Hay River. Photo: Zachary Pangborn
“The worst-case scenario is fresh in our minds. That’s what we’re planning and preparing for.”
Travis Wright’s words on Tuesday evening reflected a community that feels as though it has already been through the worst flood imaginable – and could face the same thing again in future.
If another massive flood does strike Hay River, the town has vowed to be better prepared. At Tuesday’s public meeting, director of protective services Wright and others walked residents through the lessons learned from 2022.
Wright said Hay River now knows to prepare for the possibility of lengthy emergencies, complex evacuations lasting multiple days, and floodwater inundating areas previously thought to lie out of harm’s way.
Whereas low-lying Vale Island was once the focus of annual flooding concern as the Hay River broke up, 2022 demonstrated that entire downtown neighbourhoods and small communities to the south can face devastating consequences if circumstances conspire.
Last year, a storm parked over the Hay River basin as breakup reached a climax in May, compounding the effect of high water levels throughout the basin, Great Slave Lake freezing at a record high level, and above-average snowfall. Ice along the Hay River then jammed in a fashion that sent huge volumes of water directly into populated areas.
This year, Wright said, many of the baseline conditions are different. Water levels in the basin are, if anything, below average. Snowfall seems average to date with a more detailed analysis expected soon. Results of ice thickness testing are still to come.
“But even with all these things that we do to check up on our basin, it doesn’t help us determine whether or not there’s going to be a flood,” Wright warned residents.
“Ice jams can’t be predicted. We’ll just prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
Evacuation planning upgraded
With that uncertainty noted, town and territorial officials spent much of the evening examining ways the community can be better prepared.
“The magnitude of the 2022 flood caught many of us by surprise,” said the town’s mayor, Kandis Jameson, as the evening began. Jameson was joined by NWT municipal and community affairs minister Shane Thompson alongside other senior GNWT staff. The town’s two MLAs were also present.
“Government leadership has learned several lessons from last year,” she said, “and is incorporating these into the various planning activities under way to better protect our residents for future events.”
Wright and town manager Glenn Smith focused on evacuation as an area where many improvements can be made.
“The emergency we had prepared for in the past was three or five days, not 14 days. We’re preparing for a much longer emergency,” said Wright.
“Evacuation preparedness was lacking. We were removing individuals with mobility problems days after the evacuation. This year, we have a pre-registration process to help identify anyone needing additional assistance.
“People figured [an evacuation] would be a couple of hours – in reality, with that kind of impact and that much infrastructure damage, it’s days.”
Smith said evacuation represents a “major opportunity” for all involved to do better.
“It is the key flood response activity that we will go to, to protect residents,” he said. “Being prepared to evacuate with limited notice is important. Having a plan for your family and your organization is very prudent, and recognize that evacuation may last for a week or longer.
“Have your emergency kits planned and your emergency plan discussed with your family, your office, your business environment. Have prescription medications ready for all your family members. Pre-identify places that you can stay in the event of evacuation.”
The town has a breakup page that will be used as a hub for information in the weeks ahead. That page includes an option to sign up for updates as they are published.
“The breakup season needs to be taken seriously and preparedness information will be distributed by the town and GNWT,” Jameson said.
Smith spent some of the evening explaining recovery efforts and their cost to date, alongside projects that could help mitigate the impact of future flooding.
“What should be recognized through last year’s event,” he said, “is it takes all of us to work together through the recovery.”