'My house is completely destroyed,' says evacuee from Jean Marie River, N.W.T., flooding

"I'm just telling my kids that we can't go home [for] the time being," says Derwin Clille, who was forced to leave his home in Jean Marie River, N.W.T., amid rising flood waters.

Derwin Clille has been running supplies to others since fleeing high water

Derwin Clille's home was in Jean Marie River, N.W.T. He lived there with his partner and three kids for nearly 10 years. After the flood this weekend, it's destroyed, he said. (Submitted by Derwin Clille)

The smell of fuel was the first thing that hit Derwin Clille when he returned to Jean Marie River, N.W.T., after the community of about 100 people was flooded by the Mackenzie River over the weekend.

He could see the fuel sitting on top of the water, various colours gleaming off the surface.

"We only could stay out of the truck for … about a minute before the fuel smell got too bad," he said.

Just a few days prior, Clille was filming the rising water levels at the creek near his home. He said they rose about a foot every 30 seconds.

"I kind of figured that it was going to get bad at that point," Clille said. "I went around and started telling people that the water was coming up, and that everybody should be ready to pack up and leave at any time."

He too went home and told his family — his partner, and his three kids aged four, seven and nine — to pack all the clothes they could.

Furniture seen tipped on its side. Homes were damaged by the flood over the weekend, which saw multiple feet of water and ice engulf homes. (Submitted by Derwin Clille)

About a minute into the packing, he said he heard a car honking outside his home. It was his friend, warning him the roads were going to be washed out — and soon. It was time to go.

They loaded up into their truck and fled, water already spilling into the street.

"By the time we got to the road, it was already about a foot under water," Clille said.

He took his family to Fort Providence, N.W.T., over 250 kilometres away, where they've been since, at a hotel.

But Clille hasn't stayed there the whole time.

For the past few days, he's been driving between the communities — about three and a half hours each way — to drop off supplies, like gas, water and food, to those who stayed in the area. Chief Stanley Sanguez said a group of people retreated to cabins, about 30 kilometres away from Jean Marie River.

Homes in Jean Marie River were damaged after the flood over the weekend. Clille said water filled as high as the countertops in his home. (Submitted by Derwin Clille)

The first time back to the community, Clille said he was devastated by what he saw.

Water and ice surrounded many people's homes, the stairs leading to people's doors were detached, the floors inside were damaged and the bottom half of the couches were all wet.

There was a watermark on the side of his house which he estimates was just over four feet high — about level with his chest when he stands next to it. The crawl space under his home, which sits directly on the ground and about 300 metres from the river, was still flooded.

Inside his home, where he had lived for almost 10 years, the walls were starting to bubble. The water rose above the level of their countertops, he said.

"My house is completely destroyed," Clille said.

"We salvaged whatever clothes we could for my children, whatever was still dry."

He said he's been coordinating with others from his community, including the band office manager, to help the remaining residents who stayed in the area. On Monday, he said he brought five jerrycans of gas along with food and water.

On Tuesday morning, he said he was waiting to see whether another trip to the community would be needed. 

"I communicate with them daily, through texts and phone calls. Whenever they want something, they'll try to get a hold of me and then I'll do my best to do what I can for them," he said.

Aerial views of Fort Simpson, Jean Marie River after flooding forces evacuations

1 year ago
Duration 3:23
Floods, caused by spring river break-up on the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers, have forced residents of the N.W.T. communities of Fort Simpson and Jean Marie River to evacuate. CBC's Eden Maury surveyed both communities from the air on May 10.

He added the Jean Marie River First Nation is helping cover the fuel costs for the trips back and forth.

Clille said he wasn't surprised that the river flooded this year, given the amount of snowfall in the winter. But he's troubled by the sight of what's left of his community.

"It's pretty hard to see the damage," he said. "It's like a ball in your throat, you know, and can't swallow it."

Clille doesn't want his kids to see what their home looks like now.

"I'm just telling my kids that we can't go home [for] the time being," he said. "I'm not too sure I want to show them our house, the condition it's in. It's going to be pretty hard on them as it is."

It's been difficult too for elders in the community, he said.

"They're very upset with their houses. They're not too sure what they're gonna do," Clille said. "I seen a few of them cry. It's very heartbreaking."

Chief Sanguez said the territory will be stepping in once the water in the community recedes to do an assessment of the damage. This was confirmed in a statement Tuesday from Premier Caroline Cochrane and Paulie Chinna, minister of Municipal and Community Affairs and minister responsible for the NWT Housing Corporation.

Sanguez said residents are being treated well in Fort Providence and that he has been reminding evacuees to stay put for the time being.

The homes in Jean Marie River were covered in about four feet of water over the weekend. Clille said he looked at the damage first hand and was devastated. (Submitted by Derwin Clille)

"I just keep telling the young families, I said 'don't rush to go home, there's nothing there for you guys,'" he said.

"The hotels here, they're providing sandwiches, hot soup, breakfast for each hotel members that are here."

He said freezers filled with chicken and salmon, donated to the community when COVID-19 hit, fell on their sides during the flood and are now spoiled. 

Sanguez said he wants to ensure those are all thrown away or burned so animals don't end up eating the fuel-contaminated meats.

As for the stay of evacuees in Fort Providence, Sanguez worries they will be there for the long haul, "probably right through the whole summer."

He said though everyone is working hard to get people what they need, it has been weighing heavily on him and the community.

"I just totally broke down and I couldn't have a straight face anymore … we're so hurt," he said.

"[But], we're persistent people. We're going to go through this thing … we got kicked down twice, we're going to get back up to do what we have to do to survive."

Written by Amy Tucker, with files from Joanne Stassen and Hannah Paulson