One year later: Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, still grappling with trauma and damage from 2021 floods

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Clinton Betthale and Phoebe Punch were preparing to head out to the Fort Simpson shooting range in the Northwest Territories. They said it was a good release after what they went through during last year’s flood evacuation.

As spring breakup approaches, they are just two of many in the community of about 1,200 people who are still dealing with the trauma of the 2021 flood.

Scattered across the island are visual reminders: a shack or shed found hundreds of yards from her home; a fence on land owned by Imperial Oil that sits on the ground completely destroyed; and signs along the Mackenzie Parkway warning of erosion.

Some of the damage from the 2021 spring flooding in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. The land is owned by Imperial Oil. (Luke Carroll/Radio Canada)

For Punch, there was nothing positive in what they suffered.

“We were all stressed out and there was anger rising because we didn’t know what was going on,” she said.

“There is no mental support, there is no social support.”

A sign on the Mackenzie Parkway warns of erosion along the banks of the Mackenzie River. The road has been made one-way with cement blocks to protect vehicles from the unstable edge. (Luke Carroll/Radio Canada)

Betthale helped with the flood response, while worrying about her own family and home.

“My stress levels were skyrocketing and it’s not good for me,” he said. “I’m still battling depression and it’s still hard for me, and I try to stay positive.”

The couple’s home suffered severe water damage – to the tune of $40,000 – and they had to spend seven months living in an RV, including very cold nights.

“It’s tough and I don’t want to go through that again,” Punch said.

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

Another reminder of the flooding is the empty replacement homes, raised about five feet off the ground in an effort to protect them from possible future flooding.

Berna Norwegian is one of those people waiting to move in. She’s been living out of a suitcase for a year now and won’t be moving into her new home until after the spring breakup.

But Norwegian had a positive view of the past year overall. She said worrying about future floods creates unnecessary trauma.

The main thing on her mind is how “excited” she is about moving into her new home.

“We know there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Norwegian said.

One of many unused replacement homes in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. Many people wait until their breakup is over to move into their home. (Jonathon Antoine / Radio-Canada)

The flood never stopped

While having breakfast at the Nahanni Inn restaurant on Saturday morning, Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said the flooding never really ended for him.

Sean Whelly, the mayor of Fort Simpson, said the flooding never stopped for him, even after the waters subsided. He said evacuation, recovery and preparation for this year were always on his mind. (Jonathan Antoine / Radio Canada)

“It seems that throughout the disaster itself, the response and then the whole recovery phase consumed an enormous amount of my thinking and my time,” Whelly said later that day as he stood near the shore of the Mackenzie River.

“I’ve been through this whole situation for a year and it just seems like it’s hard to get out of it.”

It was a sentiment shared by many in the Dehcho community who are looking forward to warmer weather, wondering what the break will bring this year.

A traumatic experience

Mercy Addo is the Regional Manager of Mental Health and Addictions Services for the Government of the Northwest Territories in the Dehcho region.

She said there had been an increase in the number of people asking for help since the floods last year and said they were putting in place new programs as a result.

“Based on what happened last year, this year we focused on building resilience,” Addo said.

There will also be addiction treatment programs.

Last year, flooding shut down the health center, but Addo said staff remained in the community and offered services. She said they plan to do even more if there is another evacuation this year.

Anyone needing help with flooding or other mental health issues can contact the Health center for in-person advice as well as online resources.

Dr. Katy Kamkar is a Toronto-based clinical psychologist who has experience in traumatic stress and says weather and natural disasters can significantly damage mental health.

“Psychological distress is usually exacerbated by these post-disaster stresses and losses,” she said.

Kamkar said the uncertainty about whether the community could be flooded again creates constant anxiety and resources are needed to address those concerns.

“Otherwise, it will create difficulty falling asleep, ongoing anxiety and worry,” she said. “It’s like COVID – continuous stress and uncertainty.”