Flood risk in Hay River passes, and a community devastated in 2022 breathes a sigh of relief

A porch separated from its structure still sits abandoned in Paradise Gardens, N.W.T. The valley just south of Hay River was one of the first areas to flood when high water slammed into the area last year.  (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
A porch separated from its structure still sits abandoned in Paradise Gardens, N.W.T. The valley just south of Hay River was one of the first areas to flood when high water slammed into the area last year. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

As the last of the river ice clears the community of Hay River, N.W.T., without damage, residents are breathing a sigh of relief, and trying to move past last year's devastating floods.

The territorial government's water monitoring bulletin said Tuesday that water levels on the Hay River peaked on Sunday, and have been declining ever since.

That's in stark contrast to last year, when the fast-rising river forced residents to flee Paradise Gardens, Hay River and Kátł'odeeche First Nation, flooding all three communities as well as Enterprise.

Hay River's West Channel and Paradise Gardens residents were hit the worst. The flood had devastating effects on homes and properties and some people are still trying to put their lives back together.

Shawn Buckley is a commercial fisherman who lives in the Old Town area of Hay River. He left the area early last year with his dog and camper, which he set up at the RV park outside the Hay River Community Centre.

One year later, he's still not back in his home. He was able to do some clean-up until September last year, but once it froze he had to head back to his job.

Marc Winkler/CBC
Marc Winkler/CBC

"I didn't touch my house all winter 'cause I basically had to make money to try and keep my head above water," he said. "I had to leave everything until now."

Buckley's property was up to six feet underwater and even though his house is at a safe flood level, it was also damaged by water.

In his garage, oil from his boats and machinery stains the walls.

"It's a shame to have to look at this and not have the time and energy to repair," he said. "It's hard to talk about because it's just so tiring."

He's currently focused on draining the water out of all his boat engines and machinery. His home will be next. Right now it sits empty, ripped down to its bones.

"The water did come in and soaked the walls so we had to cut the walls to rip out the insulation."

Carla Ulrich/CBC
Carla Ulrich/CBC

Buckley said he also needs to raise his home, but he's also looking at other options like purchasing a new lot and moving. For him, the view at his current location is hard to beat.

"The main lake's right there and there's a bunch of duck, geese, swans and all kinds of waterfowl come in here," he said. "And I have a lot of history here."

For now, he's focused on getting his paperwork in order to hopefully get some funding and reimbursements for labour, cleaning and repairs.

Even earlier in the flood season, however, Buckley was among those breathing a sigh of relief as few signs of flooding emerged.

Paradise Gardens

Ray Coombs lives in the Paradise Gardens valley just south of Hay River. He saw the water arrive like a tidal wave, and said everything in his basement was destroyed.

There are still things that need to be repaired in the house, he said, but for the most part, he's got everything back in order.

Loren McGinnis/CBC
Loren McGinnis/CBC

Like most people, Coombs was worried something similar could happen again as ice initially started to build up and the water started to rise late last month — and relieved when the risk seemed to pass.

"The anxiety was kicking in a little bit," he said.

Coombs said the rebuilding process was a lot of work. He had friends come up from down south to help but the weight of everything took a toll on him.

"You're working when you come home from work," Coombs said.

He found strength from his friends, family, and the support of the community.

"When things were going crazy last year, everyone stuck together," he said. "We all needed one another."

Carla Ulrich/CBC
Carla Ulrich/CBC

Coombs said it will take a while for people in the community to feel safe going into spring breakup but added that he was grateful to the Town of Hay River for being on top of things this year and making sure safeguards were put into place.

He is still wondering what can be done to avoid more catastrophic flooding in the future. He said there's been a lot of talk about preventative measures but so far nothing has been done.

"Dredging would be a great help, the amount of silt from last year was enormous. In the previous years, dredging did occur and hasn't happened here in a long time. I think that's a start." Coombs said.

Since the flood, Coombs said he doesn't take anything for granted and reminds himself that some people in the world have it way worse.

"Family and friends are important and material things are not important," he said. "Life is very short and I don't want to see anybody go through this ever again."