Fort McMurray hotels filled as flooding forces thousands to flee
Emergency planning officials addressing COVID-19 concerns during evacuation
Hotels in Fort McMurray are full and many residents are heading south to find rooms as rising floodwaters have forced the mandatory evacuation of thousands of residents from the community.
"Every hotel that is available is full right now," Sharon Piercey, guest services manager at Fort McMurray's Pomeroy Hotel, said Monday afternoon.
As of Monday evening, a mandatory evacuation has been issued for the entire lower townsite of Fort McMurray, except for the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre and the Grayling Terrace neighbourhood, which has been issued a voluntary evacuation notice.
Piercey faced a conundrum because the hotel is on the flood plain. She had to tell people seeking a room that they may have to leave on short notice due to an evacuation order.
Several hours later, officials issued the evacuation order for the entire lower townsite, and reached by phone, Piercey was busy helping her guests to leave the hotel.
It is expected many people displaced from Fort McMurray now will head south in search of vacant hotel rooms. At the Ramada Inn in Grassland, about 250 kilometres from Fort McMurray, 40 of 84 rooms were booked by the late afternoon. Hotels in Lac La Biche, almost 300 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, were also receiving queries about rooms.
Rooms were also being opened in the oilsands camps north of Fort McMurray.
The COVID-19 crisis adds another difficult dimension to the mass evacuation, as does the anxiety likely to be experienced again by many residents who were forced to flee the 2016 wildfire, said Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Centre.
"Part of the impact of the evacuation — of any evacuation — during a time of pandemic is all the uncertainty and anxiety that already exists," Schreiber said.
"And then you add to that the memories, the feelings, the thoughts that probably go through people's heads in Fort McMurray as a result of the 2016 evacuation — and this extraordinary by any means."
More than 5,000 people have registered at evacuation centres.
At a daily briefing Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said her officials had been anticipating the possibility that evacuations during a pandemic would be an issue.
Hinshaw said health officials had worked with the provincial operations centre to establish proper evacuation procedures to ensure physical distancing.
Officials will not only have to ensure COVID-19 safety measures for the evacuation, but also for the return of those evacuated after the floodwaters have receded and the work begins, once again, of rebuilding the community.
The flooding in Fort McMurray has been caused by ice jams on the rapidly thawing Athabasca River. Since Sunday, there have been successive evacuation orders as the water rose into the downtown area and flooded neighbouring suburbs.
Power in some areas has been cut off and a boil water advisory is in effect.
Brad Orr, who has lived in Fort McMurray since 1981, said this is the second time he has been forced to leave his house. He said the fire and evacuation in 2016 helped him to understand his true priorities.
"Once you get past [losing] the material possessions, it somehow makes everything a lot easier," he said.
"If people cannot dwell on it, just be happy with their personal safety and knowing that their friends made it out OK, time heals everything. It really does. And this too shall end."
With files from Terry Reith and Jamie Malbeuf