Rocky Simpson, the MLA for Hay River South, says some constituents are questioning why local flood evacuees would be sent to Yellowknife instead of another South Slave community.
Residents of Hay River’s Vale Island and West Channel are currently on evacuation alert in case they need to leave as officials monitor conditions downstream.
Hay River plans to house many evacuees in local hotels and RV parks, but the community expects up to 100 displaced people may need to be sent to Yellowknife.
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) says that follows protocols in the NWT’s Emergency Plan. The plan identifies the capital as the evacuation point for Hay River residents in an emergency.
In a Facebook post on Friday, Simpson wrote: “Due to concerns that moving people to Yellowknife does not support Hay River or South Slave businesses, I have requested the department to first use local accommodation, then what is available in Fort Smith and the South Slave region.”
The MLA urged the territorial government to consider the economic impact of the pandemic on South Slave communities, saying it was critical to support local businesses at this time.
“As residents and business owners, we have to recognize the importance of our trading partners that include the communities of Enterprise, Fort Smith, Fort Resolution, Kakisa, Fort Providence, Trout Lake [Sambaa K’e], Jean Marie, and Fort Simpson,” he wrote.
Simpson said South Slave residents visit Hay River often and spend lots of money with local businesses. He thinks this is an opportunity to reciprocate “during these difficult economic times.”
“We need to provide that support to the smaller communities and the regions as well. That’s kind-of what I’m fighting for, to make sure that we get our fair share over here,” he told Cabin Radio by phone, saying he hadn’t heard from Maca regarding his request as of Friday afternoon.
“I’m hoping they will realize Fort Smith is three hours there – it’s not as far as Yellowknife. If people are driving, then they’re not burning as much fuel. It’s helping the environment,” he noted.
He also recalled Hay River’s last major flood, in 1963, when most of the community evacuated to Fort Smith. At that time, Fort Smith was the capital of NWT.
“What I tend to find is that, a lot of times, the decisions are being made out of Yellowknife. So it seems like it’s always a ‘go to Yellowknife’ solution, which I don’t agree with,” Simpson said.
The NWT’s evacuation plan
The NWT’s emergency plan was last updated in 2018. An introduction from by then-Maca minister Alfred Moses states the plan was developed by the NWT Emergency Management Organization with input from across the territory.
In the plan, a flow chart dictates smaller communities in each region evacuate to the largest regional community, while the largest regional community evacuates to Yellowknife.
The only exception is Fort Smith, which could evacuate to either Hay River or Yellowknife depending on the “nature and size of the evacuation required.”
A screengrab of the NWT emergency plan’s host community selection protocol.
The emergency plan explains host communities are chosen “based on cultural and family association, economics, and operational efficiency.”
If a regional centre is unsuitable or at capacity, then the plan says another regional centre will be considered – but at no point does the plan direct a larger community to evacuate to a smaller community.
Evacuation plans complicated by Covid-19
Jay Boast, a spokesperson for Maca, said the Town of Hay River and the regional emergency management organization had determined some overflow capacity outside the town is needed if all Vale Island and West Channel residents evacuate.
“As an additional consideration for this year’s flood and fire season, we also have to make plans that meet the chief public health officer’s orders related to Covid-19,” said Boast by email.
“In a typical year, the community government would have used spaces like community halls and arenas for evacuation centres. This year, the evacuation plans needed to take into consideration physical distancing and self-isolation requirements, which means more hotel rooms are needed.”
Boast said the City of Yellowknife “is currently making arrangements to host evacuees should the need arise.”
Glenn Smith, the Town of Hay River’s assistant senior administrative officer, would not confirm whether Hay River had booked any local hotel rooms.
Smith said the Town is “in close contact with hotels on managing their inventory for our potential needs.”