Yellowknife outbreak complicates Fort Simpson flood evacuation plans

If Fort Simpson was forced to evacuate, Mayor Sean Whelly says community members would now be set up in Yellowknife's Fieldhouse, rather than in hotels, putting people in the predicament of choosing one danger zone over another.

Option to house evacuees at Yellowknife Fieldhouse rather than hotels concerns Mayor Sean Whelly

The Dehcho and Liard River converge right before the foot of Fort Simpson, which is prone to flooding. If Fort Simpson was forced to evacuate, the mayor says they would now be set up in Yellowknife's Fieldhouse, rather than in hotels. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

For months, Fort Simpson has been preparing for the possibility of flooding. If the community was forced to evacuate, the original plan was to set up community members in Yellowknife hotels. 

Mayor Sean Whelly said the village was notified Friday that those plans have changed. Government officials told him community members would now be set up in Yellowknife's Fieldhouse instead. Elders who do not require medical facilities would also be placed in the Fieldhouse, Whelly told CBC. 

The N.W.T.'s department of Municipal and Community Affairs declined to confirm the Fieldhouse arrangement. 

"The [emergency management office] is currently in the process of re-evaluating evacuation accommodations. Several different options are possible depending on the needs at the time," the department stated in an emailed response.

If the Fieldhouse is the option, Whelly said it just won't work.

Yellowknife and surrounding communities are now grappling with an outbreak of COVID-19. Schools are closed to in-person learning, and non-essential travel between communities is discouraged.

"Fort Simpson is going to have to rearrange its emergency plan to try to do what it can to accommodate people who just will refuse to be subjected to that type of evacuation where they're making a choice between one danger zone and another danger zone," Whelly said. 

"I'm getting a lot of feedback that absolutely no, that's just not going to fly. We're not going for that."

Mayor Sean Whelly worries the community might be put in the predicament of choosing one danger zone over another, given the recent outbreak in the territory's capital. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Outbreak blurs the picture

Yellowknife is in the midst of a COVID-19 cluster that appears to be growing. More than 1,000 people are in self-isolation following exposure to active cases. Chief public health officer Kami Kandola said Monday the city is "on the brink of community spread."

Given these announcements, Whelly said he thinks the changes to evacuation plans "is a really poor choice."

"I'm hoping that the CPHO [chief public health officer] and emergency planners in Yellowknife and MACA [Municipal and Community Affairs] will make the right decision and go back to the original plan," Whelly told CBC.

He also said the village had attempted earlier to obtain funding to prepare and establish evacuation zones on high ground, where tents and temporary accommodations could be set up. 

"We were told not to worry about it," Whelly said, "that if people have to evacuate, we got a plan, they're going to Yellowknife, they're going to stay in a hotel. So I guess why would you buy tents, if that's what you're told? But now COVID[-19] changed all that."

Whelly is meeting with territorial emergency planners this morning to further discuss options.

But Whelly suggests that community members create a plan for their families if they believe they may be affected by a potential flood. 

That could mean staying with relatives off the main island or going camping. The village has also established an area for people to set up tents, if an evacuation is declared. 

"We'll do what we can. I don't want to see people put in the danger zone," Whelly said. 

"We just don't believe that the Fieldhouse is adequate given the current situation over there."