Fort Simpson businesses scrambling for cash to repair buildings and resume trading are rushing to salvage what they can from the pandemic-impacted summer tourism season, before even more revenue is lost.
More than 700 people were displaced at the peak of flooding in the village in May. Many residents have come back to find their homes need urgent work, inns and motels are closed, and it’s hard to know where to get the help they need.
Darlene Sibbeston, owner of the Nahanni Inn, said her business had been closed for three weeks because of the damage. The inn’s bar was set to reopen on Thursday.
A pellet boiler that cost about $200,000 to install was damaged in the flood. Backup boilers were submerged.
Sibbeston thinks it’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fully restore the Nahanni Inn.
She doesn’t know when the NWT government’s disaster aid is going to kick in, so she is searching for other sources like the Dehcho First Nations.
“I can’t wait months, I need immediate assistance,” Sibbeston told Cabin Radio.
“It’s a matter of moving forward. I can’t be in a place of doom and gloom – I have to be positive. I know I will get assistance from somewhere. I mean, I have to.”
Kirby and Wendy Groat run Deh Cho Suites, which last week had lost six rooms – half of those available – to flood damage. They estimate the business has incurred at least $100,000 in costs with an addition $50,000 to $100,000 in lost revenue.
Their building is on Antoine Drive, one of the hardest-hit streets in the village.
The business had no flood insurance. The Groats are struggling to find financial assistance.
“Right now is our busy time. We should be spooling up for tourism,” Wendy Groat said. “Every day those rooms aren’t open is a huge loss of revenue.”
Kirby Groat added: “Rebuilding is feasible. However, it’s not easy because everyone is still looking at their own problems and anybody that’s in town is busy pulling pieces apart in places rather than rebuilding.”
He thinks the village should start preparing for the next potential emergency, whether it be a flood or wildfire.
“I would hope we can come up with a little better plan, because ours needs some help for a flood – and that was easy compared to some of the other emergencies we could face here,” he said.
Outdoor businesses need fixing
At Fort Simpson’s Seven Spruce Golf Course, Val Gendron said areas of the course already hurt by floodwater were further damaged when people drove through on ATVs.
The clubhouse has serious damage that will “cost a lot to fix”, said Gendron. Realistically, she said, the clubhouse may not even be able to stay in its current building.
“There’s random things that don’t belong to the golf course out here,” she told Cabin Radio. “The greens have a lot of that silt mud that makes it very cement-like. We’re not sure how we’re going to get that stuff off.”
Gendron’s house was flooded, too. She is trying to restore her home and the golf course at the same time.
By this point in the season, the course typically would have hosted a tournament to help bring in revenue for the summer.
“That’s where our clubhouse makes money, because our memberships are very reasonable and we’re trying to encourage people to participate in playing, so our fees are not really high,” said Gendron.
“Those don’t pay for grass cutting, so we need rentals and we need our clubhouse to be selling beverages and hamburgers and things.”
Jacques Harvey, owner and chief pilot of South Nahanni Airways and Wolverine Air, said no planes were affected in the flood, but buildings were destroyed or floated away, vehicles were crushed, a runway flooded, and canoes drifted off.
He said the business was “completely lucky they never lost one drop of fuel.” Silt from the Liard River floodwater is wreaking havoc with at last one engine, which must now be written off.
Harvey is not yet sure of the exact cost, but knows it “will be a very high number.”
“If we want to carry on the business, we’ll probably need financial help and labour,” he said.
“We are facing a lot of expenses and less revenue, so of course it’s created a compound effect.”
What will become of tourism season?
South Nahanni Airways also hosts paddling equipment for tour operators like Black Feather and Nahanni River Adventures.
Harvey hopes there will still be a staycation season (with limited numbers of non-NWT remote tourists under new rules) after the clean-up is complete, but doesn’t know what that will look like.
Typically, tourists and staycationers would already be making their way to the Dehcho for the summer by now. Even in this second consecutive pandemic summer, the region is a big attraction for residents elsewhere in the NWT whose ability to travel has been compromised by public health measures like isolation rules.
Yet even finding a place to stay in Fort Simpson is hard this month. The village’s territorial park remains closed, as do most other forms of accommodation.
Sean Whelly, the village’s mayor, works at the Deh Cho Business Development Centre. He said he is “very worried about the tourism industry here” and the impact on businesses.
“It’s going to take more than $100,000 to get these businesses back on their feet, and the businesses support local jobs and the tourism industry for the rest of the community,” Whelly said.
“It’s going to be important that the territorial government look at this as more of an extraordinary type of assistance situation, where other departments are going to have to become more involved – like Industry, Tourism, and Investment – in assisting some of these businesses to get back to where they need to be.”