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One year later: Fort Simpson, N.W.T., still dealing with trauma, damage from 2021 flooding

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Clinton Betthale and Phoebe Punch were preparing to head out to the Fort Simpson, N.W.T., shooting range. They said it’s been a good release after what they experienced during last year’s flooding evacuation.

As spring breakup approaches, they’re just two of many in the community of about 1,200 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 metres from its home; a fence at a plot of land owned by Imperial Oil that lies on the ground completely destroyed; and signs along Mackenzie Drive warning of erosion.

Some of the damage left behind by the 2021 spring flooding in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. The plot of land is owned by Imperial Oil. (Luke Carroll/ CBC)

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

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

“There’s no mental support, there’s no social support.” 

A sign on Mackenzie Drive warns of erosion along the banks of the Mackenzie River. The road has been turned into a one-way with cement blocks to protect vehicles from the unstable edge. (Luke Carroll/ CBC)

Betthale helped with the flood response, while being worried for his own family and home. 

“My stress levels were shooting up high and its not good for me,” he said. “I’m still fighting with depression and its still hard for me, and I’m trying to stay positive.”

The couple’s home was severely damaged by the water — to the tune of $40,000 — and they had to spend seven months living in an RV, including some very cold nights. 

“It is 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 from the ground in an attempt to protect them from potential 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 spring breakup. 

But Norwegian had a positive outlook on the past year overall. She said worrying about future flooding creates unnecessary trauma. 

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

“We know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Norwegian said. 

One of several replacement homes that sit unused in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Many people are waiting until after breakup to move into their homes. (Jonathon Antoine/ CBC)

The flooding never ended

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

Sean Whelly, Fort Simpson’s mayor, said the flooding never ended for him even after waters subsided. He said the evacuation, recovery and preparation for this year is always on his mind. (Jonathan Antoine/ CBC)

“It just seems right through the actual disaster itself, the response and then the whole recovery phase has consumed a huge amount of my thinking and my time,” Whelly said later in the day while standing near the bank of the Mackenzie River.

“I’ve lived that whole situation for a year and it just seems like it’s hard to break away.” 

This was a sentiment shared by many in the Dehcho community who wait anxiously as the weather warms, wondering what breakup will bring this year. 

A traumatic experience

Mercy Addo is the N.W.T. government’s regional manager for mental health and addictions services in the Dehcho region.

She said there’s been an increase in people requesting support since last year’s flooding, and said they’re establishing some new programs as a result. 

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

There will also be programs on addictions treatments.  

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

Anyone needing assistance from either flooding or other mental health-related concerns can contact the health centre for in-person counselling as well online resources. 

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

“The psychological distress is typically exacerbated by those stresses and losses in the aftermath of the disaster,” she said. 

Kamkar said the uncertainty of whether the community could flood again creates a constant anxiety, and that resources are needed to address those concerns. 

“Otherwise that’s going to create difficulty falling asleep, continuous anxiety and worry,” she said. “It’s like COVID — continuous stress and uncertainty.”

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