Residents of flooded Jean Marie River are beginning to ask how, and where, their community will recover.
Fewer than 100 people live in the Dehcho community – one of the NWT’s smallest – which suffered severe flooding earlier this month. More than 30 residents are still living in nearby Fort Providence while others are staying at a camp.
Chief Stanley Sanguez of the Jean Marie River First Nation has told residents it’s not yet worth returning to homes that took on more than three feet of water, or to a community contaminated by overturned and leaking fuel tanks.
After days of “miserable” cold and snow, Sanguez told Cabin Radio the smell of fuel is fading. A crew from Yellowknife is assessing damage to homes. “People want to go in and start cleaning their house,” Sanguez said, “or at least trying to air it out.”
In a community of only 30 or so buildings, Sanguez estimates between 20 and 26 homes need a damage assessment. The chief’s own house still has about three feet of water in it. The community’s school, band office, and government building must also be assessed.
Residents worry what they are coming back to and where they will stay, the chief said. That has prompted a longer-term question: is this the right place to rebuild Jean Marie River?
Sanguez said the community is starting a group that will determine how to rebuild. That could include staying in the same location, moving the community to higher ground, or placing key infrastructure in elevated areas so water can’t reach it in future.
That work is in its earliest stages. Names of potential committee members were being taken this week.
“I can’t jump the gun on this,” Sanguez said.
One option may be asking the territorial government to help raise houses further from the ground.
“We may have to do it that way,” said the chief. “This is the only time in my lifetime I’ve gone through this and I don’t want to see this happen again.”
Joanna Eyquem, the director of climate programs at the University of Waterloo’s centre for climate adaptation, said one solution is relocating the community – but knows that decision cannot be made lightly.
The river for which the community is named flows into the Mackenzie River at Jean Marie River’s western edge, creating a floodplain that will always pose a danger, said Eyquem.
“It’s very complicated because obviously the best approach is not to have the problem at all and to avoid the area at risk of flooding,” she said.
“It makes a lot of sense to move out of the floodplain because you can foresee you may have the situation again.”
But that must be “balanced with people who are very attached to their homes where they live,” and the social and cultural connections residents have.
Sanguez said he couldn’t imagine Elders would want to leave their community.
Alternatively, it may be possible for Jean Marie River to build some form of flood defence as other communities have in the past. But Eyquem said that would be costly to maintain and is working against a natural process – flooding.
More broadly in Canada, she said, communities are now “trying to work with natural processes and provide more space for flooding, trying to move infrastructure out of the floodplain and not build new infrastructure in the floodplain.”
Case studies in Saskatchewan and Nahanni Butte
Roche Percée, a small Saskatchewan community near the border with North Dakota, suffered severe flooding in June 2011.
Reg Jahn was the 150-resident community’s mayor at the time. Reached a decade later, he said Roche Percée is still recovering.
The flood was triggered by a combination of released dam water and heavy rain. Within two hours, Jahn recalled, two-thirds of the village was underwater. The flood eventually hit eight feet in some areas.
At the time, there were about 70 houses in the community. Thirty-nine experienced flooding and 28 had to be written off.
Jahn said “about 30 families” left the community after the flood because their homes were uninhabitable. They didn’t come back.
Now, Roche Percée’s houses must be built to new standards in case the village floods again.
“The rules after the flood were you could not build a house unless the main floor was higher than the highest flood on record,” said Jahn, referring to 2011’s water levels.
“One family built their house on stilts so it’s higher … and one guy took the roof off his garage and built a second storey on his garage, and that’s what he lives in.”
Nahanni Butte, an NWT community readily comparable in size to Jean Marie River, went through a similar decision-making process after a flood in 2012.
In the territory’s legislature, then-Nahendeh MLA Kevin Menicoche said: “We need a long-term plan for Nahanni Butte, which may include relocating the community out of the current flood plain it sits in.
“Climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and more severe floods in our region. The community is suggesting a move of about 10 kilometres to the east side of the Liard River where the access road from the highway is.
“Relocation could be a long-term solution, with community support, and this is a good time to re-evaluate this community.”
A year later, that relocation had not taken place (leaders in Nahanni Butte could not be reached this week to discuss how the community recovered). In the legislature, Menicoche worried that the community’s needs and its long recovery from the flood were being overlooked.
“Last year, the community was evacuated and people returned to the soggy remains of the place they were proud to call home,” he told fellow MLAs in 2013.
“The community needs adequate resources to continue to support and rebuild. Nahanni Butte does not want to be forgotten again.”
‘We got kicked down, we’ll get up’
Sanguez said one of his short-term goals is to see if community members can come back in some capacity, including the building of an additional camp nearby.
He said a temporary camp could have a place to eat, bathrooms, and sleeping spaces, so people can stay there as they gradually prepare to return home.
The NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources said by email that staff are still assessing fuel spills in the community. The number of houses badly damaged by both the flood and those spills is not yet clear.
“As the risk of additional floods remains elevated and not all sites are accessible, that work will take some time,” a spokesperson said.
“Until then, it’s difficult to say exactly how long the community will be affected due to these spills. But residents should expect this situation for some weeks to come.
“Early indications are we are facing a serious situation which will require considerable expertise to address.”
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) and the NWT Housing Corporation had nobody available for interview about their role in helping Jean Marie River to rebuild.
Jenn McManus, the vice president of Red Cross Alberta and NWT, said the Red Cross had not been called in to help but remained on standby.
McManus said recovering from any flood “takes people time, energy, and resources to get back on their feet.”
“A community will designate and decide what that feels like,” she said of the longer process facing Jean Marie River. “It cannot be prescribed, what the finish line looks like in recovery.”
Sanguez doesn’t think people will leave Jean Marie River in the fashion by which Roche Percée saw dozens of residents move away.
“I don’t think they want to move anywhere – but that’s me talking for them. We’ll find out with the committee and we’ll hear a lot from the government and from our membership about what they want to do,” he said.
“In my mind, a lot of us are not going to leave. We got kicked down twice and we’re still going to get up. I’m not going to leave.
“Some of my Elders are not going to leave here. Some have been staying here for so long.”