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An aerial photo shows the extent of the flooding of the South Nahanni River in Nahanni Butte on June 9. - photos courtesy of Roger Pilling
Nahanni Butte evacuates
Emergency shelter established in the Fort Simpson recreation centre

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rising water levels led to the evacuation of Nahanni Butte on June 9.

NNSL photo/graphic

Chief Fred Tesou of the Nahanni Butte Dene Band paddles a canoe to his house from the airport on June 9 during the evacuation of the community. A day earlier water had begun to flood into the community's low-laying areas.

Community members had begun to notice for the previous two weeks that water levels were rising, as the sandbars in front of the community in the South Nahanni River began to disappear, said Chief Fred Tesou.

As water began to flood low-laying points in the community on June 8, people began to get concerned, Tesou said. Acting on information from Fort Liard that water levels would continue to rise for the next 48 hours, the community called for the evacuation of five elders that day.

On Saturday afternoon, when the flood waters were within a foot from the power plant, Tesou said the Northwest Territories Power Corporation informed the community it would be shutting down the plant. Time was given to organize the evacuation, he said.

The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), which had been working with the community governments in both Fort Liard and Nahanni Butte to monitor the water levels, helped co-ordinate territorial government resources to assist in the evacuation and the reception of the evacuees. The Department of Transportation co-ordinated the aircraft, including three airplanes and one helicopter, to evacuate the community.

Community members had to drive through approximately a foot of water, which had covered one of the roads, to reach the airport. Conditions were worsened by rain that fell on and off during the day, said Tesou.

"There was a lot of traffic," he said.

Tesou had to make trips between the airport and his home using a canoe. Located in one of the lower-laying areas, the trailer, which is raised off of the ground, had approximately just over a foot of water surrounding it.

Approximately 80 people were in the community when the evacuation was called; fifty-two people came directly to Fort Simpson, and 16 people who were transported by helicopter to their personal vehicles on the other side of the river picked their own destinations including Hay River and Fort Nelson. Another approximately 21 people chose to remain in the community, said Tesou.

The evacuation didn't go as smoothly as hoped and some people were confused, said Tesou, who was on the last helicopter flight out of the community.

"We will learn from it," he said, and be better prepared next time.

This isn't the first time high water has forced the community to evacuate.There was also an evacuation in the early 1990s, Tesou said.

The Village of Fort Simpson worked closely with MACA to assist with the emergency, said Sebastien Goyer, the village's senior administrative officer.

Having been alerted by MACA that water levels were rising, the village had a plan in place June 8 to receive evacuees and employees on standby. When the first plane of Nahanni Butte residents arrived on Saturday at approximately 6 p.m., members of the Fort Simpson Volunteer Fire Department were on hand to greet them and take them to a bus that transported them to the recreation centre where an emergency shelter had been organized.

Some residents were able to stay with family members in the community but the rest were sleeping on inflatable air mattresses in the recreation centre's gymnasium, as of press time. Meals are being provided three times a day. The cost of both the accommodation and food is being covered by MACA, said Goyer.

To make the guests comfortable, village staff members have been organizing daily activities for the youths including movie nights. Starting on June 11, students from Nahanni Butte attended classes at either Bompas Elementary School or Thomas Simpson School, depending on their age.

Goyer said he was pleased to see the community of Fort Simpson pull together to offer help to the residents of Nahanni Butte.

"It was a well co-ordinated effort," he said.

Tesou said the accommodations have been very good, and that while the youths are having a good time the adults are a bit restless and anxious to see how their community is doing.

Water levels on the Liard River began to rise significantly on June 7, to just under 10 metres by June 9 from approximately 6.5 metres, according to information from Environment Canada's Water office website. As of June 11, water levels were remaining close to the 10-metre mark.

The South Nahanni River above Virginia Falls was at approximately 4.5 metres on June 7. On June 11, water levels were still rising, nearing the six-metre mark.

As a result of high water flow rate and debris, the ferries at the Liard River crossing and the N'dulee crossing have been closed until further notice.

The Lafferty closed on Friday night after the end of its regular day of service and the Johnny Berens closed on 11 a.m. on Sunday, after intermittent service the previous day.

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