Hay River preparing for possible flood during COVID-19 pandemic

As breakup season creeps closer, the town of Hay River, N.W.T, is preparing for a possible flood during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Town administration has come up with a 42-point plan

Breakup along the Hay River in 2018. The town is preparing for a possible flood this year during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC )

As breakup season creeps closer, the town of Hay River, N.W.T, is preparing for a possible flood during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

In recent weeks, town administration has come up with a 42-point plan that they will implement before, during, and after a flood. 

Central to that plan is a phone survey of residents of Vale Island — known better to locals as Hay River's old town. 

Glenn Smith, Hay River's assistant senior administrative officer, said town officials will be using the results to figure out how much emergency housing will be needed in the case of a flood — a new challenge created by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Glenn Smith, assistant senior administrative officer for the town of Hay River, says the town is conducting a survey for all Vale Island residents to figure out how much emergency housing they would need during a flood. (submitted by Glenn Smith)

"In the past, when there was an evacuation, people would stay with family, with friends or in a few cases they would stay in evacuation centres," Smith said. "This year, it won't be allowed." 

200 households could be displaced by flood

Vale Island is surrounded by Great Slave Lake in the north, and two channels of the Hay River on either side. The island is listed by the federal government as the one of the most at-risk areas in the N.W.T. for spring floods. 

Smith said some of Hay River's temporary housing has already been reserved for people that are forced to self-isolate after coming back to the territory. He estimates that as of Tuesday, there are 25 to 30 units being used in Hay River for self-isolation. 

This leaves about 100 units available for roughly 200 households that could be displaced during a flood, Smith continued. 

Chunks of ice near the Vale Island bridge in Hay River, N.W.T., in 2013. (Allison Devereaux/CBC)

The town is engaging with the territory's Department of Municipal Affairs to try and figure out a contingency plan for emergency housing, Smith said. The town has not ruled out using camps or sending evacuated families to Fort Smith or Yellowknife. 

The department did not respond to an immediate request for comment. 

The town's plan also includes backup for town management if they become ill because of the novel coronavirus, a communications protocol, and safe practices for monitoring staff and first responders that could be on the scene of a flood. 

Next few weeks 'crucial' for flood levels

The town has historically seen breakup start as early as the last week of April and as late as the second week of May. 

Smith said they are expecting a "more active" breakup period than the town has seen in the last five years because of prolonged cold temperatures and heavy snowfall in the region. In previous years, Smith said, ice melt started a little bit earlier due to warmer temperatures on average, which lowered the risk of a flood. 

This bridge is where the Hay River divides into the east and west channels. This is also where the town has installed one of five monitoring sites along the river to watch for water level rise. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC )

Bradlyn Oakes, CBC North's meteorologist, is starting to prepare her annual research into possible flood zones during the breakup. She's already noticed a small uptick in water levels in the last couple of weeks. 

She said the forecast until the end of April will be "crucial" to find out how much the Hay River could swell. 

"We'll really see [the water level rise] and the flow through Hay River getting larger and larger ... over the next few weeks to a month," she said. 

The Hay River has five monitoring stations that are used to watch water levels, Smith said. Four are along the N.W.T. stretch of the river, and a fifth one is monitored by the High Level, Alta., RCMP detachment. 

Smith said the town "will certainly be ready" for whenever breakup starts this year.