Jean Marie River residents are assessing the damage after flooding forced the entire community of around 80 people to evacuate on Friday evening.
Chief Stanley Sanguez of the Jean Marie River First Nation told Cabin Radio his community was under “about three-and-a-half feet of water” when residents evacuated two days ago.
“Some vehicles got submerged under the water,” Sanguez said, describing the impact of floodwater on the whole community, ranging from the band office to the school.
“All the units downtown and the houses were submerged. They’ve been contaminated because all the fuel tanks that they have in these houses got uprooted. There’s fuel smell all over the yard down here and even by my house as we speak,” he said on Sunday afternoon.
On Friday evening, Sanguez said, an initial warning siren sounded before a second, longer siren played for as long as it took to evacuate everyone.
Water levels rose so high that it became difficult for the last residents to leave.
Now, community members are feeling the impact as they make their way home.
“Everyone’s feeling down and hurt and kicked in the gut,” he said. “Even when you’re down, it’s like you got kicked again.
“The morale of our people – we’re trying to have a laugh every once in a while, but some laughs are pretty hard to take.”
The community’s senior administrative officer was on Sunday going door-to-door to evaluate the damage to each property.
Not everyone has yet returned to the community. Some members of the First Nation were taking refuge at Fort Providence’s Snowshoe Inn, while others are camping at Kelly Lake, off the Jean Marie River access road.
Sanguez will stay in Jean Marie River for the time being.
“I love my community so much,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m here for the long haul.”
On Sunday, the water beside Jean Marie River rose again slightly. Sanguez said it was not causing further damage, though he didn’t know if additional flooding might follow as conditions elsewhere on the river weren’t clear.
“We’re still waiting for the water to go down so we can continue on with what we do here, as a community,” he said.
Getting back to normal
Cell service to Jean Marie River was restored on Sunday. A portable generator was trucked in on Saturday night. Access to the community by road remains difficult.
Sanguez said he had spoken with Nahendeh MLA and cabinet minister Shane Thompson about territorial government help, but assistance may have to wait until water in the region settles.
He hopes housing units can be brought in or built for residents affected by the flooding, especially if spilt fuel has contaminated homes.
Asked how other communities might be able to assist, Sanguez said “anything financially is a good help” but Jean Marie River also has a contingency fund which is now being spent. He said the NWT government was helping to arrange coverage for accommodation at the Snowshoe Inn.
Not too far away, Fort Simpson was on Sunday evacuating its island as water levels reached 15 metres.
Residents have described this year’s breakup season as “surreal,” saying water levels are some of the highest they have seen in decades.