‘We will rebuild’: Resilience and faith in Jean Marie River, a week after devastating flood

Lucy and Isadore Simon are preparing duck soup for guests over a fire pit at their cabin, 12 kilometres away from Jean Marie River, N.W.T. 

On the surface, it looks like any normal gathering the Simons have had here over the last 30 years— but there’s sadness in these elders’ eyes this time.

“Since we met, only one time we had a flood we thought was [bad] — but that’s nothing compared to what happened now,” Isadore Simon said. “It’s been devastating, unbelievable.”

The Simons evacuated their home earlier this month after spring breakup on the Mackenzie River brought several feet of water into the streets.

A week later, the community of about 100 people was a ghost town. When CBC North arrived on May 16, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer, along with a couple of huskies, were the only ones living there full-time. 

Elders Lucy and Isadore Simon sit outside their cabin. The Simons, along with all of the residents of Jean Marie River, were displaced after flood waters enveloped the community on May 7. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Everyone else relocated either to the Snowshoe Inn in Fort Providence, N.W.T., or a small camp at Ekali Lake, four miles from the start of the community’s access road. 

CBC connected with the few people who are coming and going from the community, as they hold their breath, waiting to figure out what’s next. 

Jean Marie River, N.W.T., sits on the bank of the Mackenzie River. Earlier this month severe flooding forced people from there and Fort Simpson out of their homes. Communities downstream are braced for their own flooding as spring breakup slowly moves northward. (CBC)

The night of the flood

On May 7, some residents spent the first hours of Friday night down by the Jean Marie Creek to what was, until then, a normal breakup. 

By 6:30 p.m., the river started to swell quickly. Just over an hour later, waters rose from the bank all the way up to the town’s access road. 

Ice blocks like these ones litter the streets of Jean Marie River, N.W.T., a reminder of how high water levels came. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Officials sounded the first siren, letting people know that they should be heading to higher ground. 

Half an hour later, water completely covered the town’s main access road. The second siren went off — meaning everyone had to evacuate immediately.

“The water came in so fast, six people got stuck,” Stanley Sanguez, chief of Jean Marie River, told CBC. “The vehicles that were trying to go … were submerged in water.” 

Town officials used boats to bring those who were stranded to higher, safer ground. 

Jean Marie River Chief Stan Sanguez sits alone in the town’s emergency response centre. Sanguez, who’s dealing with the flooding of his own home, has fielded hundreds of calls a day since the night of the flood. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Since the night of the flood, Sanguez has handled hundreds of phone calls a day, while trying to come to terms with his own personal loss. He’s camping with his family at Ekali Lake for now, because their home had about three feet of water in the basement at the height of the flood.

“I don’t know how to balance it, it’s been so hard. I just cry,” Sanguez told CBC. “You can only take so much, and you’ll break. And this broke us, big time.” 

Coming home

People were told to stay out of their homes for a few days, until early last week. The Simons went back to see their place a few days later. 

The Simon house doubles as Lucy’s B&B, the only place for visitors to stay in town. Over the years, the Simons welcomed northerners, politicians and travellers from around the world.

Lucy Simon sits in here home, returning to it for the first time since the flood. ‘To have something like this happen to us, never in my wildest dreams,’ she said. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Now, much of it is completely destroyed. 

Most of the family photo albums and Lucy’s craft supplies can’t be salvaged. All the appliances and furniture will have to be replaced. The week-long power outage means all their traditional food, stored in a small warehouse full of freezers behind their home, can no longer be used. 

The Simons’ appliances and furniture have been destroyed, along with other, more sentimental items, like their family photo albums. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

“I can’t do this, all of my pictures are destroyed,” Lucy Simon said, holding back tears. “To have something like this happen to us, never in my wildest dreams.” 

The water is gone now. Remnants of the flood about a week later are lines measuring how high it came on the front of the house, and small puddles retained by bowls under the sink. 

A water line at the Simons’ home serves as a memory of the flood. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

‘We’re grateful people are thinking of our small community’

Most of the houses in Jean Marie River look similar to the Simons’, with boulders of ice marking a path of destruction. 

Propane tanks are ripped off public housing units near the town’s airport, spilling gasoline all over the ground. It’s been cleaned up since, but the smell still lingers.

A shed, lifted by flood waters, sits in the trees in Jean Marie River, N.W.T. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Sheds ripped from their foundations are found in nearby trees, or knocked over face up near the river bank. 

As of Sunday, generators in some private homes supplied power, but public buildings, like an emergency response trailer, were still dark. The town was waiting on a generator to power public spaces over the weekend.

Every day at noon, people drive down to the emergency response centre trailer for a community meeting. Sanguez and town officials use those meetings to hear what residents need, and to start making a recovery plan. 

Community members gather at a daily meeting at the emergency response centre. The meetings, which take place at noon every day, allow residents to voice their needs, and leadership to start building a recovery plan. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Residents can pick what they need from a pile of donations set up in the nearby fire hall. Food, camping supplies and bottled water fills up the space, and dedicated volunteers drive for hours to help out.

Gail Sanguez, a volunteer with the donation committee, said they’re overwhelmed by the support. 

“We’re just so grateful that people out there are thinking about our small community,” she said. “Our people are very happy.” 

Lucy Simon, left, and Isadore Simon, right, smile over a donated box of KFC. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

‘We will rebuild’

Sanguez said he’s encouraging those who go to see their properties not to touch anything so insurance companies and the N.W.T.’s assessment teams can see the damage for themselves. 

The N.W.T. government said in a news release they deployed the first assessment teams to Jean Marie River on Monday, to start figuring out what’s been lost and what needs to be replaced. 

Still, Sanguez said it could be months before things go back to normal. 

“I’d say till the fall,” Sanguez said, when asked how long it’ll take for people to come back to the community. “It might take that long … because we don’t know how to deal with this stuff.

Even me, my basement’s been flooded, and I don’t know what to do first.” 

Jean Marie will also be putting together a committee to talk about their next steps. One option, Gail Sanguez said, is relocating many homes to higher ground, further up their access road.

The access road to the community remains muddy and wet, but driveable, after it was covered with water earlier in the month. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

“I know most residents want to relocate higher, to prevent stuff like this from happening again,” Sanguez said. 

For now, the Simons are set up at their camp, with their own pile of donations brought to them by friends and family. They still welcome everyone passing through town at their campsite, now the extension of their bed and breakfast. 

The Simons say they’ll be ready for the day that they’re able to return to the community for good. 

“We will rebuild,” Lucy Simon said. 

Isadore Simon inspects his walls after returning home for the first time since the flood. It will be a long time before he’s able to move in permanently, but he and his wife Lucy say they will be ready. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

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