Fort Simpson orders island evacuation, declares state of emergency

Communities in the Dehcho and South Slave regions of the Northwest Territories are monitoring and responding to rising water levels on the Mackenzie and Hay Rivers.

First responders started moving elders off the island early this morning, says mayor

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said Saturday morning that rising water levels on the Mackenzie River have started to flood areas of the island, including the Flats, and have made some roads impassable. (Submitted by Sean Whelly)

Officials in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories have ordered island residents in the community to evacuate their homes, and have declared a state of local emergency because of rising flood waters. 

A message posted to the community's website early Saturday afternoon said "an evacuation order has been issued for island residents in Fort Simpson. Residents are required to register at the Recreation Centre before evacuating." 

Shortly after 5 p.m., the community announced on Facebook that planes would start arriving at 8 p.m. to evacuate residents to Fort Smith — but that people should not head to the airport unless they'd already registered at the Recreation Centre. 

Those who are isolating because of the COVID-19 pandemic are urged to contact the centre by phone, while those who need help leaving their homes are asked to call or visit the centre in person. 

According to updates posted online, water levels on the Mackenzie River reached 14.4 metres around 2:40 p.m. Saturday. The update said everyone should prepare for power outages, because the power plant would shut down when waters reached 15 metres — or possibly earlier. 

An aerial view of the Mackenzie Rive breakup at Fort Simpson. (Submitted by Christine Horseay)

"It will take some time for the Power Corp to set up the generator for supplying power off island," it read.

Water levels on the Mackenzie River first reached 14.2 metres around 11:35 a.m. Officials started informing residents as early as 7:45 a.m. that they would see ambulances and buses transporting elders off the island.

Officials had set up a spot at the Recreation Centre where residents, as of 9 a.m., could register for evacuation procedures. People who are self-isolating are asked to call the registration desk instead.

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly spoke with CBC host Marc Winkler on The Weekender Saturday morning, saying the focus earlier was on elders living in their health care facility or those who receive care at home. 

Those receiving care at home will be relocated to the Bannockland Inn, a short distance south of the island but within the community of Fort Simpson, said Whelly. Those living in long-term care are being moved to other facilities in Norman Wells and Hay River, he said. 

Whelly said water levels have only reached this height five of six times in the past 40 years. 

"This year, we're evacuating elders at 13.5 [metres] .... given what we know about the starting high level of the Mackenzie we thought we'd be a little more proactive this year and not have ourselves racing around at 14 [metres].

There are limited methods of transportation in the community, said Whelly, but they have some "breathing room" because it's the weekend. 

For the latest flood updates follow this link.

Other communities in the N.W.T. are also monitoring rising water levels, including Hay River, Fort Providence and Jean Marie River.

The swell of water and ice has blocked some roads in Fort Simpson. (Submitted by Dave Myre)
(Submitted by Brandon Bugghins)
First responders began moving elders off the island in Fort Simpson early Saturday morning, when water levels rose past 13.5 metres. As of 2:40 p.m., levels had reached 14.4. (Submitted by Sarah Camsell)

With files from Marc Winkler