'Light at the end of the tunnel' as services return, damage surveyed in Fort Simpson

·5 min read
Mayor Sean Whelly gives an update to CBC on the flooding in Fort Simpson. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)
Mayor Sean Whelly gives an update to CBC on the flooding in Fort Simpson. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC - image credit)

Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is at a turning point in its flood crisis, its leaders say, though there's still a long road ahead to repair the community.

Over 700 residents were forced to evacuate the community over a week ago when the river broke, with some fleeing to Fort Smith, Hay River and Norman Wells. On Friday, water levels rose again to more than 16 meters — the highest this season.

Displaced residents have been camped out at a tent city near the village.

Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Gerald Antoine said on Monday that people are "beginning to have that sign of relief."

Mayor Sean Whelly told CBC that as of Monday, the power plant is back up and running and critical buildings like the Northern grocery, health centre and recreation centre are open once again.

Power line technicians have also started going door to door to ensure that the breakers are off at people's houses before power can be restored. He says they're working their way from the south end of the island to the north. Whelly says he isn't sure if that will be complete by the end of Monday or Tuesday.

Soon, water will be flushed through the village's system as water is restored to the water plant, though it won't be immediately potable.

"It'll be super chlorinated water put through the system," Whelly said. "We're not going to be able to guarantee potable drinking water right off the bat but I've been told that as early as Tuesday we'll have drinking water around the community."

The sewer system is expected to be functional by Wednesday, after it is flushed out.

Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie said the airport is open for late flights with flare infrastructure in place to ensure planes can land when the power is out.

There is also work toward getting the ferry operational again, though she says even when it is running, it could be suspended with little notice due to ice conditions.

Whelly says this can be considered "phase one of getting the community back on its feet," and calls it the "quick fix."

But there's a long road ahead to get residents and businesses back to where they were.

Chief Gerald Antoine of the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., tells CBC the situation in Fort Simpson on May 17, 2021.
Chief Gerald Antoine of the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., tells CBC the situation in Fort Simpson on May 17, 2021.(Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

'Severe' damage

Whelly says the village is likely looking at millions of dollars of damage and months of work to put things right.

Food from the store won't be available for another few days either, Whelly said, even after the power is restored to the Northern Store, since it will need to be restocked and cleaned.

"They had food go bad in freezers," he said, adding even though it wasn't affected by water it's still "a major mess and cleanup."

But Whelly says he "can't say enough" to those that helped out residents in need.

"It wasn't even us asking, they were just saying 'What do you need?' And they were filling up plane loads of stuff [and] food," he said.

To the residents, he said "we're going to keep supporting you and trying to assist with your individual cleanups of your properties and business."

"We're going to be behind you as this community starts to apply for the different disaster assistance, relief that I'm sure the territorial government will be coming through with, and will help to guide you through that process."People were also allowed to see their homes on Sunday, as the water further receded and they were asked to assess the damage and report back.

Chief Antoine, who went there with his son, said people are now faced with the question of what's next.

"There's all this uncertainty," he said, though people are also making sure others are safe.

"I'd like to encourage people to continue being together, continue helping each other, continue being with family, and you all need to be involved in helping rebuild our community," Antoine said.

"Even though it's day nine, it's exhausting … there's a light at the end of the tunnel."

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly, left, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Gerald Antoine, centre, speak with CBC's Loren McGinnis about the flooding in their communities on Monday, May 17, 2021.
Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly, left, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Gerald Antoine, centre, speak with CBC's Loren McGinnis about the flooding in their communities on Monday, May 17, 2021. (Mario De Ciccio/CBC)

'Damage is severe' in Jean Marie River, says Minister

Infrastructure Minister Archie, along with Municipal and Community Affairs and Housing Corporation Minister Paulie Chinna, also touched down in the community of Jean Marie River on Friday, where most homes have been devastated by the flood.

"As of right now, the damage is severe," said Chinna, who added that regional housing staff in the Dehcho are being supported by those in the Sahtu.

"We went into the community and I opened up a drawer where you keep your utensils — the whole thing was filled with water ... mattresses were soiled, furniture was soiled … water tanks were dismantled. We saw warehouses that were up in the trees, we saw a block of ice that had been right centre into the community as well."

Chinna says that she doesn't have a timeline on when rebuilding will start in Jean Marie, noting that it's dependant on damage assessments, but also environmental damage, due to fuel tanks that were dismantled.

For now, she says, she's concerned about the people affected and about "keeping them comfortable, safe, warm."

"We have a long way to go in the community, but [Municipal and Community Affairs] and housing corporation is very much fully in support of rebuilding the community."