The City of Yellowknife, already in a significant housing squeeze, has suddenly inherited hundreds of new residents for an indefinite period.
Evacuees from the other side of Great Slave Lake arrived in Yellowknife throughout Thursday. Some have friends and family to stay with, but many are relying on an evacuation centre at the city’s multiplex.
Flooding in Hay River and the Kátł’odeeche First Nation is among the worst on record and the water is still rising, meaning a return home seems impossible in the short term.
“This is not ‘you’re going to be home by Saturday.’ We’re playing the longer game right now,” said Sheila Bassi-Kellett, Yellowknife’s city manager, on Thursday.
“If people can’t go home for days or weeks, what does that long game look like? We’re still trying to work out the details.”
The housing shortage in Yellowknife is sufficiently severe that the city’s chamber of commerce recently described the situation to the CBC as “zero vacancy.”
Yellowknife residents spent much of Thursday offering anything they had – a spare room, even sofa space – to people arriving in the city from the flood zone.
Bassi-Kellett knows that the multiplex cots can’t be even a medium-term solution for families who’ve lost their homes. They will need more comfortable, child-friendly places to stay, she said.
Complicating the picture, the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said on Thursday afternoon, is uncertainty about the number of people to expect.
Not all evacuees are headed to Yellowknife. Around 60, for example, have gone to Fort Providence. Fort Simpson and Fort Smith have opened their doors, and some have driven south to northern Alberta.
Some evacuees are still on the move, more than a day later – either taking their time to choose the best option or moving between locations.
Bassi-Kellett said the key will be establishing what those evacuees need once everyone reaches Yellowknife.
“Right now, it’s easy,” she said. “We need to have lots of power bars so people can charge up phones and tablets, we can make that happen. We can give people wi-fi. We can provide free access to the pool and fieldhouse. We can provide a bunch of information on where to take your dog for a walk.
“But we’ve got to figure out what’s needed on the ground, short-term, and then: are we housing people in the longer term? There are lots of conversations going on about the possibilities of billeting.
“Determining what it is that evacuees need is going to be really important. How many people are coming? What are their needs? Are there families with toddlers? Are there teenagers?”
The Yellowknife city manager said the situation being described by her Hay River counterpart, Glenn Smith – who is facing a badly damaged water and sewer system, and repair work lasting months or years – is “gut-wrenching” for fellow municipal professionals.
“The story on the infrastructure is absolutely mindblowing and it’s dear to my heart,” she said. “These are fundamental, essential services you need to operate a community. It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible to see this.”
But she praised the response from Yellowknife on day one.
“The chamber of commerce was on it right away. Businesses were stepping up before dawn. Our special events team is starting to plan some events,” she said.
“The groundswell of support has been phenomenal.”