A year on from historic and damaging flooding, Fort Simpson is readying for the onset of another spring melt.
More than 700 people were displaced from their village homes in 2021. Some houses were destroyed. Sean Whelly, Fort Simpson’s mayor, says a new emergency plan is being finalized in the coming weeks.
“Taking into account what happened last year, we want to make some improvements,” Whelly said.
“We’re anticipating people will be better prepared, in many ways, because of what they saw and experienced last year. Still, on our side, we want to be better prepared so that if we go to an actual evacuation, things aren’t a scramble so much and the groundwork is laid out.”
Whelly said one of the village’s priorities this year is to give residents the message: “We can’t do everything.”
“We think that’s probably an unrealistic expectation,” the mayor said. “One of the things we’ve learned is that it would be very difficult for the village to be prepared to a point where no one had to make arrangements on their own.”
An emergency preparedness meeting was held in Fort Simpson on March 22 and more are scheduled in the coming weeks, Whelly said, alongside public engagement sessions.
The outlook this year
The extent to which Fort Simpson – at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers – could face a similarly severe flood season this year remains unclear.
“We’re already being warned by the government that we’re at a high risk of flooding again,” said Whelly.
“While that’s contingent on a lot of other things happening, like how fast the spring melt occurs, we’ve been told the snow pack was larger than average and the ice thickness is about six feet.”
Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said snow surveys will be conducted in the coming weeks but factors like ice jams, a major contributor to flooding, are harder to predict.
Ryan Connon, a territorial government hydrologist, said flood severity “will be 100-percent dependent on what the ice does.”
At this point last year, the territorial government had already warned residents about the potential for flooding. A similar alert has yet to be issued in 2022.
Planning for flood response is complex. When a natural disaster strikes, NWT communities have their own emergency management organizations and so, at a regional level, does the territorial government.
If extra help is needed – like last year’s military assistance (ultimately, just two Canadian Rangers were assigned) – the territory is in charge of making that request.
At the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, which coordinates much of this emergency preparedness, Emily King said lessons learned last year include giving communities more guidance at the planning stage and creating better public information campaigns.
The Red Cross was expected to help Fort Simpson evaluate its community plan but that has yet to happen, village senior administrator Kevin Corrigan said this month.
The village has an initial breakup plan that contemplates several scenarios. If the water level hits 15 metres, an evacuation of the island begins.
Whelly said officials are trying to “focus on communication to the public” and let residents know what they can do ahead of time, including the importance of having their own plan if an evacuation is triggered.
Darlene Sibbeston, president of the Fort Simpson Métis Nation, wishes preparation for potential flooding this year had started earlier. She hopes the community can clarify roles and responsibilities so that a concrete plan exists before breakup.
“We really have to be ahead of the game, maybe even a year advanced,” Sibbeston said.
“It was devastating to go through that last year – really devastating. It kicked a lot of people down. We just need to be on the ball.”
Sibbeston wants one clear line of communication to exist for spring breakup, to ensure residents aren’t receiving mixed signals about what’s happening.
The Líídlįį Kúę First Nation did not respond to a request for comment.
Tent city plan
If the worst does happen, the village is examining whether the tent city developed last year could be improved.
“We want to make sure the road is ready, the site is clear of any snow, and that we’ve got some structures pre-set up,” said Whelly, “like a communications tent, a cooking area, some warm canvas tents with heaters perhaps for Elders, and cots.”
Parking and storage need to be considered, as does a safe place for people to bring pets if they need to leave their homes.
A tent city isn’t for everyone. Some people need additional supports and must be accommodated elsewhere. But figuring out where people could go last year was difficult.
Yellowknife had a large Covid-19 outbreak at the time and Hay River needed to keep accommodation open in case its own flooding, near Vale Island and the West Channel, warranted an evacuation.
For those who remain behind, the supply chain also needs consideration. Whelly said he wants a better system than last year, when the community was “relying on the donations that were coming in.”
“We were all in the same boat last year and none of us really thought something that severe was going to happen,” the mayor said.
“As a community, we have a lot of good ideas and we want to make sure everyone’s on the same page as we prepare.”
Caitrin Pilkington contributed reporting.