'Their priorities are elsewhere': Flood volunteers frustrated with quiet response from N.W.T., Ottawa

Some volunteers and fundraisers are speaking out about a perceived lack of response from the N.W.T. and federal governments during flooding in the Dehcho.

'Isn't that somebody's job ... to go in and make sure people's essential needs are met?'

Beth Hudson is one of several volunteers who've stepped up to help people displaced by flooding in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. "Spirits are high but it's hard. People are realizing that they might be camping in an open muddy field for seven days." (John Van Dusen/CBC)

Melaw Nakehk'o drove more than a thousand kilometres from Yellowknife to Jean Marie River and back Wednesday night to bring a tent to a displaced elder. 

Most of the homes in the small community of 70 people are severely damaged after high water levels from this year's breakup caused major flooding. 

A group of volunteers, under the name "Dehcho Strong," have been at work ever since, buying essential supplies at their own cost for family members, friends and fellow northerners in Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson. The response was so overwhelming that both communities asked for donations to stop temporarily, so they can find a place to store them.

Nakehk'o told CBC she'd like to see officials with more experience in disaster relief take over for tired volunteers, who are helping their communities while also grappling with loss. 

"Isn't that somebody's job in the Northwest Territories, to go in and make sure people's essential needs are met?" Nakehk'o said. 

Melaw Nakehk'o said she'd like to see officials take over for volunteers who are helping their communities and coping with loss. (Submitted by Melaw Nakehk'o)

Nakehk'o is one of several people expressing frustration at the perceived lack of support from both the N.W.T. government and the federal government for flood evacuees in Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River, five days after the flooding started. 

Beth Hudson is another of the volunteers who stepped in to help tackle a situation "none of us have dealt with in our lifetimes." She's in Fort Simpson, coordinating supplies for some of the people now camping on higher ground after the town of about 1,200 was flooded. 

"I'm just really doing my best to keep the flow of supplies constant," Hudson said. 

Hudson estimated some 400 to 500 people were camped out on the land. Mayor Sean Whelly later guessed the number of people camping was closer to 100, though there's no official tally. 

"Spirits are high but it's hard," Hudson said. "People are realizing that they might be camping in an open muddy field for seven days."

Patrick Scott started a fundraiser for evacuees in Fort Simpson. He says the territory should be calling a state of emergency, like they did for the flood of 1989, considered one of the worst for the community. (Submitted)

Fundraiser says N.W.T. 'preoccupied' with COVID-19 outbreak

Patrick Scott started a fundraising page soon after the flooding started in Fort Simpson. He was living in that community during the 1989 flood, widely considered one of the worst on record for the community. 

Water levels are higher this year, he said, so the territory should be declaring a state of emergency, like they did in 1989.

What that would do, according to the N.W.T.'s emergency management act, is give the minister of municipal and community affairs (MACA) the power, among other things, to "authorize or require a qualified person to render aid," and control the distribution of essential supplies. 

Because they haven't made that call yet, Scott said that means the government's priorities are elsewhere. 

A shot of Jean Marie River, N.W.T. during the 2021 spring flood. (Paul Thunder-Stealer/Facebook)

"There's a preoccupation with the COVID outbreak in Yellowknife," he said, referring to the cluster of cases from N.J. Macpherson School. "They can't see the forest for the trees." 

That doesn't mean there isn't any action being taken on the ground, Scott and Nakehk'o said, but the public is being provided with little information about what they're doing. 

"At least send out a press release," Scott said. 

Nakehk'o said morale is still high among volunteers, because they were able to quickly meet the needs of evacuees from both Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River — which, she said, is a "huge relief" for everybody. 

"We were able to provide the community with a sense of comfort for the moment, for the community to reassess and take a look at the bigger picture," she said. 

N.W.T. outlines flood response 

In a press release issued Thursday night (after the CBC had conducted the above interviews), the N.W.T. government outlined their response to the flooding in the Dehcho. 

So far, the territory has sent aircraft to support those who needed to leave the community, and, on some flights, brought in emergency supplies. They are also evaluating the best ways to manage donations from residents, and will be providing more details on how to do that at a later date. 

When it's safe, the press release continued, they will start assessing the damage done to homes and community spaces. Part of this work will be finding out how much money will be needed to repair what was damaged. The territory is already in talks with Ottawa to find out how they can contribute. 

Teams from the N.W.T.'s infrastructure department will be working in Fort Simpson in the next few days to clear ice from the shoreline, so ferry service can start to the island.

"The North has always been a place where residents come together during a time of need and I know we all will for those impacted by the flooding," a statement from premier Caroline Cochrane reads.

"We are going to do everything we can to ensure that you are safe and have the supports you need."

With files from John Van Dusen