Residents of the fire-damaged Hay River highrise have been told it could be months until they are allowed to once again live in the building – if that happens at all.
Though nobody was injured in Friday afternoon's 11th-floor fire, the highrise suffered considerable damage from fire, smoke, and particularly water.
Wally Schumann, the Hay River South MLA and infrastructure minister, told displaced residents at a meeting on Sunday: "This is a disaster."
"It’s a community that is short on housing to start with, and there are going to be 120 people displaced," said the MLA. "This could be weeks and weeks, if not months, if ever, if you get back into this building."
Chucker Dewar, the NWT fire marshal, told residents he was working on a plan to give them very limited short-term access in order to retrieve high-priority possessions.
"We have two elevators functioning. We’re thinking of bringing in four tenants at a time. We’re going to give you full access to your suite for a limited amount of your stuff," said Dewar.
"Think of the very small and very priority things that you want to gather – a tub of stuff.
"We’re not in a circumstance where we can start moving furniture, large objects, or multiple contents of your property."
Aside from damage to many suites, especially those on the north side beneath the apartment in which the fire started, the biggest concern for Dewar's team is the possible presence of asbestos.
Extensive water damage to a number of suites and fire separators requires urgent renovations, but Dewar expects any floors where asbestos is present will have to remain empty while repairs take place.
As almost every floor is affected to some degree, Dewar said "this greatly complicates occupancy of the building during any renovations."
"The plan is to provide emergency access in the short term because right now, the asbestos is not a problem until renovations start. Our objective is to get you in so you can get some immediate things," he said. "We’ll worry about the renovations following that.
"[Moving back] is going to be a long-term planning thing. It’s not going to happen in the short term."
The 11th floor will not be accessible, even on an emergency basis, said Dewar, given the level of damage.
A final plan to provide short-term access to possessions will be communicated to residents "in the very near future," the fire marshal said.
Dewar could not confirm, beyond a doubt, the presence of asbestos in the highrise – which was constructed in the 1970s, when the material's use remained commonplace.
Asbestos is considered dangerous because inhalation of the material's fibres can cause serious or fatal illnesses. However, it often does not pose a threat if left undisturbed.
'A lot depends on building owner'
The building's structural integrity will be assessed on Monday, while a disaster mitigation company has conducted a walkthrough of the highrise with the fire marshal and is due to provide a report to both the territorial government and the building's owner, Harry Satdeo.
Schumann said much of what happens next depends on how Satdeo – who was fined in 2017 for failing to comply with mandated renovation work at the highrise – responds to the crisis.
"It’s a private landlord that owns this thing, so a lot of it is going to be dependent on how he handles this situation going forward, if you guys even get back in this building," said Schumann.
"The owner is clearly trying to assess what’s going on here. Chucker is doing his job to assess the safety of the building.
"The longer it takes for the water issue to get addressed, that’s going to escalate things, if we ever even get back into this building. It’s something we don’t want to be leaving too long."
Satdeo was not present at the meeting. He has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Other concerns at the building include loss of power to many water-damaged suites plus water damage to the fire alarm system, which is now inoperable and requires assessment by its manufacturer.
Schumann said the territorial government is urgently working to figure out the number of available units to house people while the building's future remains uncertain.
Hotline, counselling, meals available
Deputy ministers of the relevant NWT government departments will meet on Monday to assess the emergency, as will Hay River's town council.
Another meeting for displaced residents will be held at 6:30pm on Monday.
Hay River's health authority has taken charge of attempting to provide for the immediate needs of highrise residents.
Erin Griffith, from the health authority, urged those affected to come and see social workers any time from 9am till 8pm on Monday.
Crisis counselling is to be put in place, with more information available soon.
Meals are available three times a day at the town's friendship centre: breakfast from 8-9am, lunch from 12-1pm, and supper from 5-6pm.
A hotline for residents requiring help after hours has been established: call (867) 875-8256 for assistance.
The investigation into the fire's cause continues.
"We are investigating in cooperation with the fire marshal’s office right now," said RCMP representative Brandon Humbke.
A voluntary questionnaire was circulated among residents at Sunday's meeting, designed to help police with their enquiries.
"At this time the investigation is ongoing and that’s all we can really release at this time," said Humbke.
With files from Mark Lundbek, CKHR