How Nahanni Butte learned from the past to prepare for flooding
After a worrying week and plenty of overnight rain, Nahanni Butte is breathing a sigh of relief that flooding in the area appears to have slowed for the time being.
Officials continue to monitor markers measuring the rise of the South Nahanni River and plan for a possible evacuation in the next week, but the river appears to be providing a little more time to prepare.
“Last Tuesday, the water was coming up eight inches every day,” Soham Srimani, band manager in the Dehcho community of just under 100 people, said on Saturday.
“For the past four or five days, I’ve been staying up at night… I was really, really worried. People were tense. It was alarming, the way the water was coming up. But today, things feel OK.”
Bryan Strong, the principal of Charles Yohin School, has been watching the water in front of his home. There, a stick placed to measure the rising water level – one of many placed strategically around the area to monitor how the situation is progressing – is almost completely submerged.
But if floodwater starts creeping over the road in this particular spot, the band office will dump a temporary berm to hold it back, contact the NWT government, and begin the evacuation plan.
The other spot that will trigger an escalation in the community’s response is the power station.
As soon as waters reach a predetermined level indicated on a stick outside the station, the whole community will drop off its grid. Three generators will ensure the few people who plan to remain have access to freezers, fridges and other essentials.
Earlier in the year, the NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs designated Yellowknife as the community’s evacuation site. Fort Simpson is much closer, but there were concerns – after flooding in 2021 overwhelmed Fort Simpson – that it might not be a safe location.
Now that any danger of flooding appears to have passed in Fort Simpson, Maca has organized a shelter in the village to accommodate potential evacuees from Nahanni Butte.
Bordered by water and mountains on all sides, Nahanni Butte is effectively an island – which complicates the evacuation plan. Nevertheless, community leaders say they are prepared for the worst-case scenario.
The trio leading the flood response
Chief Steve Vital, Soham Srimani and Lory-Anne Bertrand have been coordinating the community’s response for weeks. Remembering a 2012 flood that caught the whole community off-guard, as well as events in Fort Simpson in 2021, they decided early in the season to have a strategy in place.
“It’s a big concern every year,” said Bertrand, the community’s emergency coordinator. “In April, Steve and Soham called a community meeting and all members met in the gymnasium to discuss the possibility of flooding. They were already thinking ahead, which is great.”
Soon after, they posted a role for someone to focus on emergency response. Bertrand stepped up.
“Not everyone was coming to meetings, so yesterday we went from house to house, asking, ‘If we evacuate, will you need air travel? Or will you be jumping in your own vehicle? Do you need assistance getting to your vehicle? Or are you planning on staying in the community?’
“So now we know which individuals will be in which category, we know what members plan on doing, which is really good. Some people are a little skeptical it will really flood this year, but we want them to know that if it happens, we can offer assistance if they need it – that we have a plan.”
Residents will rely on either plane or boat to get out of Nahanni Butte. Residents leaving by boat will be ferried to their vehicles, parked near Highway 7 across the Liard River.
In the meantime, Bertrand is watching the forecasts and checking the water as often as she can, and posting regular updates for the community online. She recommends that everyone in Nahanni Butte have a bag packed and ready.
“We had a meeting yesterday morning with Maca and, if it gets to that point where we need to evacuate, they’ll give us a little bit of time to let people know, and then the flights will start going.”
Soham Srimani only moved to Canada in December 2020. In less than two years, he has become a central figure in the Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band’s community.
“It’s just so beautiful here,” he said. “To be able to wake up in the morning and have a cup of coffee and look at the river and the mountain… really beautiful.”
But the view from the river’s edge has a price.
“I’ll be leaving on Monday, most likely,” he said. “Just in case. It’s a risky area.”
In his role as band manager, Soham says he has been working on many plans for the community’s future. Now, after months collaborating on infrastructure development and events, he’s worried flooding will get in the way.
“We have some housing projects coming up, an arbour project, our Treaty 11 celebrations are planned for July… we thought it would be a very, very busy summer, we were preparing for it, but this flood could delay everything,” he said.
He plans to retreat to Yellowknife, where he’ll try to do as much work as he can remotely.
Srimani knows the emergency plan down to the last detail but gives the credit to Bertrand and Chief Vital.
“He’s a really good leader,” Srimani said.
“Even if we evacuate, he’s staying here to make sure everyone is safe. He’s been doing a lot of emergency planning. He and our emergency coordinator Lory-Anne, they’re really good.
“From what I hear about 2012, we were not at all prepared. So this time we at least know what to do, we are measuring the water, we have a policy in place, all these things. And with help from Maca and the GNWT, we will be good.”