Flood and pandemic exacerbate housing crunch in Fort Vermilion

Fort Vermilion residents whose homes have been damaged by flooding are staying in hotels, campers or with friends and relatives as clean up work continues in the northern Alberta hamlet.

Province considering emergency housing as majority of residents can’t return home

Receding flood waters in Fort Vermilion have left behind debris and silt that must be cleaned up. (Supplied by Cameron Cardinal)

Fort Vermilion residents whose homes have been damaged by flooding are staying in hotels, campers or with friends and relatives as clean-up work continues in the northern Alberta hamlet. 

The community of about 750 people was evacuated on April 26, when an ice jam caused the nearby Peace River to overflow. 

Flood waters have now receded, leaving more than 150 damaged structures behind, said Cameron Cardinal, Mackenzie County councillor for the area.

The water rose by several metres in some areas, he said.

"There are only seven homes that aren't affected by the flood waters," Cardinal said. "The sewers also backed up in several of them because the water basically had nowhere to go."

Businesses, churches, cemeteries and the local school were also flooded. 

Cleanup is underway, Cardinal said, and assessors have started investigating the extent of the damage. 

"From there, we can come up with a timeline of how many people can come back and when," he said. "It could be a week, it could be three months, it could be six months."

The pandemic has made it more difficult to find temporary accommodations, Cardinal said, since people can't be in crowded spaces under ongoing physical distancing restrictions. 

St. Mary's Elementary School in Fort Vermilion was damaged when an ice jam on the Peace River flooded the community. (Supplied by Cameron Cardinal)

"If we didn't have COVID-19 to contend with, it would've been a simple, no-brainer solution. We could have set up camp," he said. 

"We have the high school, we have our community complex where we could have housed people."

Instead, most evacuees are staying in hotels in the nearby towns of High Level and La Crete, while some are camping or staying with friends and family.

"It also comes with a huge price tag," Cardinal said. 

Limited housing 

Wanda Beland, who grew up in the area, is helping families through her work for the Northwest Regional FASD Society.

Housing options in the community were already limited before the flood and are nonexistent now, said Beland.

"It is a very small community that has very limited rental accommodations."

Beland is advocating for temporary housing to be set up within the community so residents can stay together as they rebuild.

An ice jam on the Peace River caused flooding in late April in Fort Vermilion. (Supplied by Cameron Cardinal)

"They're already being traumatized," she said. "They need to be able to try and move on within the community that they know."

The area is populated with Indigenous and Métis people who have a longstanding connection to the land, said Beland. 

The Beaver First Nation, Tallcree First Nation, Little Red River Cree Nation and Dene Tha First Nation all call the area home.

"That's where their roots are, that's where their families are buried," she said. "That's where they need to be to keep that connection."

Lots of work ahead 

A cursory assessment identified between 30 and 50 structures that will have to be rebuilt, said Shane Schreiber, assistant deputy minister of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Residents still have a lot of work ahead of them, he said.

"They've got to take their flood-affected belongings out, throw them out. They've got to air their homes dry and they've got to do damage assessments to see what actually needs to be fixed."

The province is considering several options for housing people during the rebuilding process, including bringing in mobile housing, said Schreiber. 

"We're also looking at whether or not some people may choose to stay in High Level, and in local rentals if it's more conducive to their lifestyle and their family cohesion," Schreiber said. 

No insurance

The vast majority of Fort Vermilion residents do not have flood insurance, said Cardinal. 

The community is on a known floodplain, he said, and insurance is too expensive.

"I've heard figures as high as $1,200 a month just for overland flood insurance."

The province is providing help for residents through its disaster recovery program. 

Fort Vermilion can expect to see about $47 million of the total sum that has been earmarked for northern communities impacted by flooding, said Cardinal. 

"We have to be very careful how we spend those dollars," he said. "The number one priority is our homes and our businesses, that we're able to get them up and going again and get people back in their homes."


Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.