Despite the heaviest snowfall on record over the winter, water levels were low as the Hay River began its annual breakup, and the West Channel and Old Town areas remained dry as of Saturday.
“This has been a year of extremes,” said Kevin Wallington, the community liaison with the Emergency Measures Organization (EMO). “We had the most snow we’ve seen in decades, a long winter and very cold temperatures, and this is the quietest breakup I’ve ever seen.”
As of May 11, the West Channel was mostly clear, but the East Channel remained mostly frozen. The breakup is considered complete when both are open and flowing.
“At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see,” said Wallington. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Normally, the ice on the Hay River breaks up in the first week of May.
Wallington indicated the melt has been a slow and steady affair this year, making it less probable that quickly melting ice and snow would build up and cause a flood.
The last few years have seen quite a bit of fluctuation in when and how the ice breaks up, he noted, adding the Town of Hay River has taken steps to facilitate communication between itself, emergency services and the residents of Vale Island.
“The main focus has been on making sure we’re prepared for whatever comes, no matter what the numbers indicate beforehand,” he said.
In recent years, the municipality has been working with the residents most likely to be affected and has stopped ordering mandatory evacuations, instead leaving it up to those who live in Old Town and the West Channel whether they find the risks associated with flooding to be acceptable.
“We’ve learned some lessons in the last few years,” Wallington said. “We do a lot more flood mitigation, things like dredging and making sure the drainage system on Vale Island is working properly.”
Fire Chief Ross Potter also has never seen such an anti-climactic break up, particularly after such a harsh winter.
“At this point we’re not seeing a big risk, as waters levels are low throughout the whole basin,” Potter said. “But that could all change tomorrow if we get rain or if it rained further south.”
Both Potter and Wallington agree that a lower perceived risk does not mean there will be a scaling back of preparations for an emergency situation.
“We’re not backing off in any way,” said Potter, adding that contingency plans include a receiving area set up at the community hall, with beds if need be.
In the event of a flood, the fire department and emergency services will be keeping people off the island until the danger has passed.
“I’m anticipating there will be no flood,” Potter said on May 9. “But I’m a pessimistic type of person, so I would rather prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Wallington said, while he will remain vigilant, he’s looking forward to the process being complete, noting, “We all want to get on with spring and into summer now.”
— Sarah Ladik