Water levels around Fort Simpson were fluctuating on Friday as the Mackenzie River gradually began to break and ice packs began flowing past the village.
Mayor Sean Whelly said the water level had risen back to 16 metres, a metre higher than the earlier mandatory evacuation point, by noon on Friday. “The Mackenzie hasn’t really come yet,” he cautioned.
“We’re in a holding pattern again,” said Whelly.
“More damage has been done to some businesses and people because it’s just a little bit more water on the back end [of the island]. Luckily it hasn’t come up higher on the front end.”
Access to the main island has been blocked since last night. “The fire chief feels it’s quite dangerous,” said Whelly.
Hundreds of people remain displaced from their homes. Many are staying with friends and family in other NWT communities, more than 100 have been evacuated to Fort Smith, and some are staying in tents on higher ground outside the island.
NWT residents and communities have rallied to send emergency supplies to the village, to the point where volunteers have asked for donations to be paused as there is no longer room to store them.
Residents are asked to conserve water. Local water delivery is on hold because of the uncertainty regarding water levels.
Rain is forecast in the region from Friday evening into Saturday.
“If it was a warm rain or something, I’d say it would help the ice. But this is cold,” Whelly said.
“It’s going to be almost freezing, so the rain is probably going to be making very little difference to anything right now.”
Under pressure from some quarters to provide more support, both the federal and territorial governments have said they are working to help Dehcho residents affected by flooding.
At Friday’s Question Period in the House of Commons, Richard Cannings – the NDP MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay, British Columbia – asked the Liberal government how it planned to help residents in Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson.
“The Liberal government’s response is that they’ll consider future funding requests,” Cannings noted. “Will this government act immediately to help the people of the Northwest Territories who have been flooded out their homes?”
Joël Lightfoot, the parliamentary secretary for public safety and emergency preparedness, said the federal government is “concerned about the flooding and is prepared to help the provinces and territories if there is a request.”
“We are closely monitoring the situation … all across the country,” said Lightfoot, who made no specific commitment in his response.
“We are certainly ready to support the provinces and territories if they need help from the federal government to deal with flooding.”
In a news release on Thursday, the territorial government said: “Once it is safe to do so, the GNWT will begin the process of assessing the damage to the residential areas as well as community infrastructure.
“Priority is on supporting impacted communities as they rebuild and recover.”
The GNWT added it was “assessing the need for financial assistance, for further support, as we assess community damage.” The territory said that included “initial discussions” with the federal government.
Diane Archie, the minister responsible for infrastructure and the NWT Power Corporation, said on Friday she was travelling with municipal and community affairs minister Paulie Chinna to see the situation in Fort Simpson first-hand.
“At this time, the GNWT has sent aircraft to support evacuations as well as supplies requested by community emergency organizations,” the territory’s Thursday statement read.
“As the flooding situation evolves, the GNWT is also looking at options for how to manage donations that residents and organizations are looking to make. More information will be provided once details have been confirmed.”
The GNWT has a disaster assistance program but applicants must meet a range of specific criteria to make claims.
Move infrastructure off-island?
Whelly told Cabin Radio he would like to see federal support to accelerate construction of Fort Simpson’s new liquid-natural gas plant.
The village’s current power plant is located on the river and has the potential to be flooded each time breakup happens, leaving residents without power.
The new LNG plant is planned for higher ground.
“I heard that there wasn’t enough federal grant money given to help move the plant this year,” Whelly said. “So, while the plans are laid to do that, it didn’t occur.
“I’d really like to see the feds stepping up and speeding up that process so that, in case this happens next year, we don’t have all the issues with power.”
Whelly said future infrastructure projects, like a proposed hospital, should now be built off the main island to ensure flooding cannot disrupt their operation.