Fort Simpson mayor says territory 'needs to step up' as community recovers from flooding

·5 min read
Fort Simpson mayor says territory 'needs to step up' as community recovers from flooding
Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly says it's time for the territorial government to 'step up' in supporting communities recovering from spring flooding.  (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)
Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly says it's time for the territorial government to 'step up' in supporting communities recovering from spring flooding. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)

The immediate threat of flooding in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., has subsided, but the community continues to grapple with displacement, and uncertainty about what lies ahead.

"We need the territorial government to step up and say exactly what they're going to do," said Sean Whelly, mayor of Fort Simpson.

An estimated 700 residents were forced to evacuate the community more than a week ago when the Liard River broke, with some evacuated to Fort Smith, Hay River and Norman Wells.

So far, assessing damage, providing accommodations for those displaced, and planning reconstruction has largely fallen on local officials, volunteers, and essential workers, he said. Support within the community has been strong, but they need more assistance, he said.

Last Saturday, the federal government approved the request for Canadian Rangers to help assist victims of flooding.

"Well, those guys never showed up. As far as we know, they were activated… but, you know, we haven't heard a word since, " said Whelly.

According to a statement from the Department of National Defence Friday, between two and six Canadian Rangers were, "at any time," in the community between May 15 and May 20.

Ice litters a road in Fort Simpson in the aftermath of flooding resulting from the spring break-up on the Mackenzie River.
Ice litters a road in Fort Simpson in the aftermath of flooding resulting from the spring break-up on the Mackenzie River.(Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

"During that time the Rangers performed general and logistical tasks along with ice/water monitoring," the statement reads.

But with water levels dropping, the Rangers have left town, the statement says, to work "on repairs to their own homes and communities, as they themselves were affected by the situation."

Town still supporting six people displaced by flood

The village is supporting half a dozen people who are unable to return home until the damage is assessed, but they don't know how long that will take.

"We don't have the capacity or the ongoing funding to permanently be housing people," Whelly told CBC.

They forgot the reality that we're going to face. - Muaz Hassan, Fort Simpson business owner

As time passes, the municipality says they need to shift the responsibility back onto departments generally responsible for these issues, like housing and infrastructure.

"It's quite normal in a disaster type situation like this … that the governments start to step up to provide more permanent solutions," he said.

"We need them to step up now."

Possible sewage and fuel contamination facing homes

Evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes nearly a week ago. It has been the responsibility of community members to determine whether their homes are livable.

Whelly said he hasn't been told when experts will be able to assess homes.

"It could take a while," he said.

Whelly has heard reports of possible sewage and fuel contamination, which residents are working to resolve.

People are "trying the best they can to fix their own houses," but added, "we're not experts."

WATCH | Volunteers mobilize to get donations to residents of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., affected by floods:

Every year, the threat of a flood looms over Fort Simpson as it approaches spring break-up.

In March, with unprecedented water levels already measured on Great Slave Lake, the government of Northwest Territories sent out a press release warning of the potential for flooding.

Whelly wondered why the response has been slow from the territorial government, if they knew this was a possibility.

"There's an issue there," he said.

Communities 'neglected' by Yellowknife decision-makers: business owner

Muaz Hassan, a local business owner, volunteer, and council member echoed some of these concerns.

Flooding this past year has been a unique test both for the community and for the territorial government, he said.

He thanked the territorial government for the assistance they've provided so far, like supplies, but said it does not go far enough.

Now the community is in recovery mode, and he said "it's really strange" that the territorial government didn't spend more time investing in preparing and planning.

Local businessman Muaz Hassan called it 'strange' that the territory was not better prepared to offer support given dire warnings about high water levels in the spring.
Local businessman Muaz Hassan called it 'strange' that the territory was not better prepared to offer support given dire warnings about high water levels in the spring.(Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

He said some communities are "neglected," because much of the decision making process takes place in Yellowknife.

"They start thinking about other things, like making the COVID[-19] secretariat … and they forgot the reality that we're going to face," said Hassan.

Regardless, he said he wants to see more funding toward the community so they can build up their own capacity to become less dependent on the territorial and federal governments.

Inspection team on ground: department

In a response to questions from CBC, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) said "representatives from the regional [emergency management organization] are in ongoing and regular communication with the communities."

MACA has also continued to provide supplies to the community, including 300 food hampers and three pallets of water on Wednesday, according a to a press release Friday.

In that same press release the territorial government said that an inspection team with the Department of Infrastructure is working today with a local electrical contractor to assess buildings.

A spokesperson for the department said "all buildings in Fort Simpson affected by flood damage," including private residences, are being inspected.

According to the spokesperson the inspections are "specifically for electrical, boiler/pressure vessel and gas installations," including in residential homes.

Other support described Friday includes emergency funding for those on income assistance who have been affected by the flooding: $500 for individuals and $1000 for those with families.

MACA said the next update on the government's planned support for impacted communities will come in five days time, on May 26.

The department said staff will continue to monitor conditions and lend assistance where necessary over the long weekend.

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