'I started freaking out': Pregnant Chisasibi resident describes chaos after fake evacuation report

A false rumour of Chisasibi's dam breaking last week sent residents of the Northern Quebec Cree community into a panic, leading to the chief and residents wondering who was responsible.

Chief commits to reviewing community's emergency plan after rumour of dam bursting spread panic

Chisasibi resident Anita Angatookaluk is one of the people who says an evacuation drill would help her feel more secure after being caught up in dam breach hoax. 'I starting freaking out.' (Submitted by Anita Angatookaluk)

At 38.5 weeks pregnant, the anxiety brought on by a false report of a dam breach near her home in the James Bay region of Quebec was particularly acute for Anita Angatookaluk.

The Chisasibi resident was caught up in mass chaos and panic in the community Saturday night after a false rumour of an evacuation order spread like wildfire on social media.

"People were driving everywhere. There were so many cars," said the 20 year-old soon-to-be mom. "I started freaking out."

Chisasibi is located on the south shore of La Grande River, about 10 km from James Bay, and more than 1,400 km north of Montreal.

It is also downstream from Hydro Quebec's La Grande Complex of dams and generating stations, which produce half of the public utility's output and capacity.

Residents flee Chisasibi in their cars on Sept. 1 after the dam breach scare. The rumour was later revealed to have been a hoax. (Submitted by Mona Coonishish)

'We didn't know what to do'

Angatookaluk and others describe a scene where people were racing around the community in their vehicles yelling, desperate to find their children. Elders and those without transportation were out on the streets waiting to be picked up, convinced the community was about to be washed into James Bay.  

Angatookaluk said she opened her front door to the sight of a line of 30 cars waiting for gas before evacuating.

The person who started this put a lot of people in danger.- Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish

"I was really shocked. We really didn't know what to do," she said.

Angatookaluk and several hundred other residents fled the community to an evacuation site locally referred to as "High Ground," located about nine km outside the community. There were already more than 100 other cars there when she arrived, Angatookaluk said, along with police trying to calm people down.

It's difficult to establish how long the panic lasted before Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish went on local radio to confirm there was no emergency.

But the worst was not over for Angatookaluk.

Several hundred residents fled the community on Sept. 1 to this evacuation site, known as 'High Ground,' before they received the all-clear to come back to Chisasibi. (Maamuitaau/CBC)

"I started feeling pain in my lower abdomen," she said, adding she thought she was going into labour right at High Ground.

"I was really scared I was going to [have my baby]," she said, adding it took about 15 minutes before the pain subsided.

With her boyfriend's help, she was able to calm her nerves and head back to the community.

Angatookaluk says the whole experience has really shaken her feeling of security in her community and exposed a serious weakness in Chisasibi's disaster planning.

Community to revisit emergency plan

The community's chief agrees. Bobbish says he's committed to revisiting the town's emergency preparedness plan and making sure it is communicated more regularly with residents.

"I know it's been a while since we revisited the emergency preparedness plan," said Bobbish, adding people need to turn to local authorities for information before sharing something.

Davey Bobbish, the community's chief, says that he has asked police to fully investigate how the rumour started, and if charges should be laid. (Jaime Little/CBC)

"That's where we need to do our part as a community."

A review of the emergency preparedness plan was ordered earlier this week. Bobbish also said he has asked police to fully investigate how the false rumour started and advise him on whether charges should be laid.

"The person who started this put a lot of people in danger," said Bobbish. "People were running around and driving fast. People were panicking. That was a big issue in the community."

Angatookaluk agrees that there needs to be consequences for the person who started the rumour and caused so much distress.

"I don't think anyone should have felt that way," she said.

"What went through my mind was my baby and my family and how much I love everyone."

With files from Mathias Jolly, Diane Icebound