‘We are resilient’: Hay River, N.W.T., still recovering months after historic flood
By Emily Blake
Kandis Jameson remembers hearing trees on the shore of the Hay River “snapping like toothpicks” as water levels quickly rose this spring.
“It was the eeriest feeling,” the mayor of Hay River, N.W.T., said. “That’s one thing that will always be in my memory.”
The town and nearby K’atl’odeeche First Nation Reserve experienced their worst flooding on record in mid-May. As floodwaters encroached into homes, swallowed roads and seeped into the downtown, thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate.
Months later, as winter begins, some people are still displaced and many others are working to recover.
Laura Rose is one of several tenants waiting to get back into her apartment at Whispering Willows, a 17-unit seniors’ public housing complex. She has been staying with her sister in Peace River, Alta., more than 600 kilometres away, while her dog Tessa is in a kennel in Grimshaw, Alta.
“It has been a long haul,” she said.
“It’s not home,” she added. “You feel a little lost and out of place.”
Other seniors are staying at hotels or with family members in town.
Sandra Lester, vice chair of the Hay River Seniors Society, said the building sustained about $1.2 million in damage. The flood destroyed electrical components for solar panels, flooring, millwork and cupboards. Tenants had to throw out food in their fridges and freezers.
Lester said renovations have been slow, but the complex will soon be ready to reopen. It also plans to provide programming again to the wider seniors community, with up to 150 people using the space before the flood.
“I think we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Lester said.
The territorial government estimates the flood caused more than $174 million in damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure, such as the town’s water treatment plant and one of its wastewater lift stations. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs said that as of Sept. 15, it had received 484 registrations for disaster assistance, completed abatement work on 196 properties and had issued approximately $14 million in advanced payments.
Jane Groenewegen, who owns several properties in Hay River, including the Cambridge Executive Suites hotel, said there is a “tremendous demand” for places for people to stay in town.
“There are people who were able to camp in their houses over the summer but didn’t have a furnace,” she said, adding that’s an issue now that the temperature is dropping. “There have been contractors in here working very hard to get things restored and it just isn’t done yet.”
Even before the flood, Hay River had housing challenges.
A 2019 community housing survey found that of the 1,383 households that responded, almost a fifth said housing was either inadequate or unaffordable.
In March 2018, a fire on the 11th floor of Mackenzie Place, also known as the Hay River highrise, displaced more than 100 residents. The tallest structure in town, the 17-storey apartment building still sits empty with signs warning of asbestos and satellite dishes clinging to deteriorating balconies.
Work is underway to add more housing in the town.
In 2019, the town projected that its population could grow from roughly 3,500 to 6,000 over the next five years with the opening of a new fish plant and planned long-term care home, as well as a pellet mill in nearby Enterprise, N.W.T.
Beyond housing, the flood has also affected Hay River’s economy, which is home to a commercial fishing industry and several agriculture operations.
Terry Rowe, a business owner and president of the Hay River Chamber of Commerce, said the impact has been “devastating.”
“It’s still something that everybody’s still dealing with and still trying to rebound from,” he said, noting several downtown buildings are still closed.
Jamie Linington with the N.W.T. Fisherman’s Federation and Freshwater Fish Harvesters Association Inc., said the flood damaged and wiped away a lot of fishing equipment and destroyed fishers’ living quarters. She said assessments have come in low for the value of what was lost.
“It’s very devastating what that flood did,” she said. She’s concerned about how it will affect fishers’ ability to supply the new fish plant, set to open in spring 2023.
Alex McMeekin owns and operates Riverside Growers, a farm and greenhouse in an area known as Paradise Valley, a farming and residential spot about 25 kilometres outside of town, which was hit hard by flooding. He said his business is still rebuilding, but the owners of at least one farm in the area lost livestock and have left the community.
“It’s going to take some time to regrow,” he said. “I don’t think the Paradise Valley is written off ? but I think it’s certainly got to adapt and get some creative solutions in order to keep producing in that area.”
The mayor said she’s happy with the progress the town has made, given the extent of the damage. Jameson said that’s thanks in part to the response of residents and support from the territorial government.
“It’s incredible ? what we saw with this community coming together and it’s why I sit in this chair,” she said. “People are amazing.”
The town is considering ways to prevent damage from future flooding. One project being considered is raising the road to the airport, which would require partnership with the territorial government.
“We’ve made it through. Let’s hope the sun is way shinier on the other side,” Jameson said. “Of course it’s not going to happen overnight. Slow and steady wins the race and we are Hay River, we are resilient.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
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