Weeks after the flood, N.W.T. homesteaders tackle ’30-acre catastrophe’

Ray Coombs watched the Hay River arrive at his homestead “like a big tidal wave” of water and ice. 

“It was really surreal what happened,” he told CBC’s Loren McGinnis. “And then it seemed like the perfect storm. 

“I could hear crackling like a major forest fire — that was the trees snapping off and I could see in behind the house, like a big tidal wave coming of water and ice. And it just rose up about two more feet and a wave was coming through our yard.”

Flooding from the Hay River overwhelmed the small community of Paradise Gardens earlier this month. The agricultural area lies about halfway between Enterprise and Hay River. Days later, Hay River itself would be inundated prompting an unprecedented, middle of the night evacuation of the town’s nearly 4,000 residents. 

Coombs remembers wearing chest waders trying to get out of his yard in time, and warn his neighbours as well. 

“The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. When I seen it coming, I just couldn’t believe it,” Coombs said. 

“It was just crazy.” 

Ray Coombs on his porch on May 9. Flood water came up seven and a half feet. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Over two weeks later, the cleanup is underway at 73 Garden Road, the homestead Coombs shares with his partner, Ashley Coombs.

Ashley calls it an “almost 30-acre catastrophe.”

“Feels like it’s never ending,” she said of the cleanup. 

“Everybody’s doing okay. We’re all healthy and alive and fine. But.”

She said just getting back to the house was a challenge.

First they had to gather and bring in the materials, then they “couldn’t even get past the icebergs that were in the way and fallen fences and debris that had floated so far and to places we didn’t even ever expect or think that could be possible.”

Coombs says his basement got the worst of it, and will have to be gutted. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

They cut a hole in the side of the house to get everything out and start drying things out. 

Ray said water came up about seven and a half feet (2.2 metres), and that his basement got hit the hardest. 

“This looks a bit better now than a week ago,” he said, adding he’ll likely have to gut everything completely, “right down to the bare walls.”

“Everything got destroyed,” he said. “It’s numbing, actually.” 

Ashley Coombs says the cleanup feels ‘never ending,’ but she’s grateful for all the support. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Ashley said they have two jobs now: navigating the bureaucracy of insurance and repairs, and making their home livable again. 

An assessor has visited, Ashley said, but they haven’t heard anything yet. She’s prepared for a long haul of negotiating with government departments and said they have a list of damages and repairs. 

The next job on the ground, she said, is putting the sheds back together, finding the contents that are salvageable and throwing away what isn’t. 

That, and washing. “Washing things off. Lots of mud.” 

‘We’re not the only ones’

Despite the damage, Ray said he’s “actually doing pretty good,” inspired in part by the sense of community that’s also arrived like a tidal wave in Hay River, bringing friends and neighbours with it to help out. 

“It’s just amazing how people can merge together and help out one another in times like this.”

Improbably, Ray said he’s got to be strong now, for friends and family that also got hit hard by the floods. 

Coombs saving what he could during the floods earlier this month. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

“We’re not the only ones,” Ray said. “But at least our house can be saved and we can move on from this tragedy.”

Ashley said their three boys — ages 8, 10 and 11 — have weathered the storm as well, with a surprising amount of resilience. 

“They came down here… one day with me and couldn’t believe the site of the fence posts that were broken and boats in places that they had never seen,” she said. 

“Their trampoline ladder is hung up in the trees down the driveway, and they were just in awe.” 

Ashley too is moved by the community support, from people who’ve come to help to those who’ve offered supplies or helped with the kids. 

“It’s just an outpouring of support.”

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