Edmonton

Evacuees likely can't return to Fort McMurray for another week, mayor says

Nearly 13,000 people forced from their homes by flood waters in the Fort McMurray region likely won't be able to return home for at least a week, the municipality's mayor says.

At least 1,230 properties damaged, 13,000 residents displaced in northern Alberta city, municipality says

Warmer temperatures are offering some hope to thousands of evacuees in Fort McMurray, Alta., who are waiting for the icy river to break. (McMurray Aviation)

Nearly 13,000 people forced from their homes by flood waters in the Fort McMurray region likely won't be able to return home for at least a week, the municipality's mayor says.

Don Scott, mayor of Alberta's Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said 1,230 structures in the oilsands city have been damaged, about half the number that were damaged during the massive 2016 wildfire.

"We anticipate that we are going to keep people in hotels and camps for at least another seven days," Scott said. "Although if we can get people back home earlier, we're certainly going to."

The water level in the Athabasca River, which runs through the city, is down 3.5 metres from its peak on Sunday, Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Thursday at a news conference.

The ice jam on the river, which was 25 kilometres long on Sunday, was about half that size on Thursday, Nixon said.

Re-entry plans

The plan is to have a staged re-entry once it's safe, Scott said.

"We're still at the stage where the ice has not broken yet in our region, although it appears that there's a lot of signs of optimism in the region. The ice jam has shortened significantly but is still a presence so we're still going through that."

A team is working "around the clock" on a re-entry plan, said Scott Davis, the municipality's director of emergency management.

Businesses will be prioritized over homes to ensure returning residents have the services they need, he said.

Electrical problems and sewage back-ups in flooded buildings are a concern, Davis said. Inspections of all damaged properties will need to be completed first.

The recovery will take a long time, the mayor said.

"We don't think this will be a quick recovery, just given the number of structures that are damaged. It's basically the core of our downtown, including many, many businesses that are impacted."

The Red Cross has set up in the community, Scott said.

"We anticipate there will be a lot of insurance claims, and a lot of either underinsured people or people with no insurance, so there's going to be a lot of work to do going forward."

Massive ice jams

Emergency crews and river scientists are monitoring water levels as the massive ice jams clogging the rivers in the area begin to melt and break loose. 

"At this point, we've got our fingers crossed and everything that Mother Nature will continue to work our way," Davis said.

An ice jam more than five kilometres long remains on the Clearwater River, upstream of downtown Fort McMurray.

"If it continues to break up and flow further down the Clearwater and past the lower townsite safely, then I would suggest  the risk is low, Davis said. 

"However, should that ice, as it breaks up, jam along, say, the Snye [River], there is a possibility that the water would re-enter the areas it's already left," he said. "If that ice jams again in the same location in the lower townsite, we could have another problem of flooding. So we're erring on caution.

"Although water levels may be dropping, the river hasn't broken. River break up has not been declared. These areas still pose a risk due to fluctuating water levels, scattered debris and damaged infrastructure."

The flooding began Sunday, when a 25-kilometre sheet of ice effectively dammed the Athabasca River, forcing the Clearwater to reverse course and flood the city's downtown core.

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for almost every area of the Fort McMurray's lower townsite, where conditions remain dangerous.

Danger passes in Fort Vermilion

On the Peace River, in north central Alberta, ice jams downstream from Fort Vermilion gave way on Wednesday, allowing the existing ice cover to flow downstream, said MacKenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen​​​​​​.

"It's a great pleasure to announce that the flooding danger of Fort Vermilion has passed," he said.

The ice run stopped and jammed again about 24 kilometres downstream from Garden River on that evening, forcing the evacuation of approximately 800 residents from that community, Knelsen said.

About 450 have been forced from their homes Fort Vermilion and the Tall Cree First Nation.

Before anybody can return home, he said, all buildings must be inspected for structural integrity, and for power, natural gas and environmental hazards.

"We will not allow re-entry to happen until we can safely do so," Knelsen said. "We are starting a rapid damage assessment which includes an assessment of all buildings in the flood zone.

Images of downtown Fort McMurray show a community overwhelmed by flood waters. Water levels in the nearby rivers continue to drop. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Financial aid for evacuees

Financial relief for evacuees was announced by Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday. 

Starting Monday, evacuees can apply for $1,250 for each adult and $500 for each child.

Kenney said those who are being sheltered in hotels and other accommodations will have their costs covered by the province and local municipalities.

The flooding comes as Fort McMurray is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn caused by crashing oil prices. A raging wildfire in May 2016 forced the evacuation of the entire city and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings.

Michelle Toner, who fled the city during the fire four years ago, said this latest natural disaster has taken a toll.

"To start seeing those lineups again and then hearing helicopters overhead — it was a little all-too familiar," she said. "This time of year is really emotional for people in Fort McMurray."

The 41-year-old volunteered Monday at one of the evacuee registration centres. 

Toner said she knew when she decided to volunteer that she would have access to personal protective equipment because Fort McMurray is a "safety-conscious community."

As she was volunteering, she saw a mother washing her baby with a bottle of water in the parking lot. Another family had a child who requires a feeding tube and they weren't sure where they were going to stay that night.

"They're heavy things," she said.

Toner said she was one of about 30 volunteers who helped evacuees get registered. Hundreds of others put down sandbags around the hospital or installed dams.

Wood Buffalo residents have been granted an exemption from physical distancing and other provincial health measures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus. Tuesday's decision was intended to make it easier for volunteers and workers involved in sandbagging, pumping and other flood-prevention work.

Based on her time volunteering on the front line of the flood, Toner said COVID-19 doesn't seem to be stopping people from helping out.

"They were all wearing masks and gloves," she said. "But they were really more concerned about the people and the community than they were about the virus."

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is holding a virtual community town hall on Thursday at 5:50 p.m. local time to provide an update on the flood. Details on how to watch the update can be found on the municipality's website. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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