Heavy rain, snow melt creates 'perfect storm' for flooding in northern Alberta, says chief

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An estimated 1,100 people left the community on the Dene Tha' First Nation over the weekend as water in the Sousa Creek Basin and surrounding waterways continued to rise. (Robby Didzena - image credit)
An estimated 1,100 people left the community on the Dene Tha' First Nation over the weekend as water in the Sousa Creek Basin and surrounding waterways continued to rise. (Robby Didzena - image credit)

As rising floodwaters forced his family to flee their home community of Chateh in northern Alberta, Robby Didzena remained behind.

The 19-year-old high school student was among a small number of community members who stayed in the remote northern Alberta community through the weekend, in an attempt to protect local homes from damage.

Chateh is about 850 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

He and other volunteers drove quads and small boats to areas hardest hit by the rising waters.

Fighting the currents often proved impossible, Didzena said.

"It was just too hectic to get to the most difficult places because the water pressure was too strong," he said.

"The current was pushing us as far as it could."

Robby Didzena
Robby Didzena

An estimated 1,100 people left the community on the Dene Tha' First Nation over the weekend as water in the Sousa Creek Basin and surrounding waterways continued to rise.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Sunday.

Water levels continue to fluctuate and community members are now scattered in hotel rooms and evacuation centres across the region are anxiously watching the forecast.

Overland flooding, caused by heavy precipitation and snowmelt, has elevated the flood risk in a handful of communities across northwestern Alberta.

'We are losing our homes'

By Saturday morning, the situation in Chateh was rapidly deteriorating, said Didzena.

His family had left the night before, joining a line of vehicles headed to High Level.

"I let my mother and my brothers leave before me because I didn't want to leave my community empty handed."

Local roads were washed out by the rapidly rising waters, he said. Volunteers worked to build temporary dams around the homes of community elders, only to watch them break apart in seconds.

"It was a stressful, sad, grieving moment right there because most of our homes are being washed out," he said.

"We are losing our homes to water, to Mother Nature. She's beating us."

As of Tuesday morning, floodwaters in Chateh were holding steady, said Chief James Ahnassay of the Dene Tha' First Nation. A change in the forecast has provided some relief, he said.

"There is a slight rise in the water levels," he said. "But things are basically the same. There is no precipitation.

"And they're showing a bit of sunshine out to the west so that's good news."

I can't wait to get back. I miss my home - Robby Didzena

The community braces for the possibility of flooding every year but this is the worst it's ever been, he said.

A mixture of overland flooding and heavy rain into the local river basin created the "perfect storm" this spring, he said.

The community was evacuated due to significant flooding last spring. It then took weeks for water levels to subside enough for residents to return, but this year he expects it will take even longer.

"All that the people went through …and then we get hit with an even worse flood," he said.

"Now we have to go through the whole thing again."

Alberta Environment and Parks website lists the Sousa Creek Basin as a flood warning under its advisories and warnings.

According to an update issued Tuesday, water levels continue to fluctuate due to snowmelt.

Water levels are expected to remain high for the next two to three days. Once the water levels peak it will take at least another week for the river to fall below flood thresholds, the advisory states.

Chateh is among three northwestern Alberta communities contending with overland flooding.

Active states of local emergency have also been issued in Little Red River Cree and the Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement.

As of Tuesday morning, about 20 to 30 homes on the Paddle Prairie Métis Nation Settlement had been evacuated.

A spokesperson for Alberta's Minister of Transportation said the "government has people on the ground to help impacted Albertans with relocations, with access to medical and social services, with road repairs and with overall coordination of the emergency response."

Alberta Transportation has crews on the ground working around to the clock to ensure roads are passable, Rob Williams said in an email Tuesday afternooon, adding that work is underway to repair washed out culverts.

Water crossed the road at various locations along Highway 58 west between High Level and Rainbow Lake but the road remains open, Williams said.

Currently there is mostly ditch and side slope damage, he said.

Most of the evacuees from Chateh have found temporary accommodation in High Level, either sleeping in hotel rooms or on mats at the local arena.

As of Tuesday morning about 676 evacuees have been registered in High Level.

Other evacuees have been transferred to other communities, including a hotel in LaCrete and a work camp in Rainbow Lake.

For Didzena, who is now staying with his mother and siblings in a High Level hotel room, watching his home become a "ghost town" has been painful.

"I can't wait to get back," he said. "I miss my home."

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