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Klondike Valley residents call for better emergency responses from gov't ahead of upcoming flood season

Ice jams on the Klondike River near Dawson City, Yukon, caused flooding in the Henderson Corner area, May 11, 2023. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC - image credit)
Ice jams on the Klondike River near Dawson City, Yukon, caused flooding in the Henderson Corner area, May 11, 2023. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC - image credit)

People living in the Klondike Valley area, just outside of Dawson City's municipal boundaries are urging the territorial government to seriously look at improving its emergency response ahead of the upcoming flood season.

Last May, residents living along the Klondike River in the subdivisions of Henderson Corner, Rock Creek, and Dredge Pond were hit with extreme flooding due to historic ice jams in the river.

The flood led to more than $1.5 million in insurance claims.

On Tuesday night, impacted residents attended a public meeting to talk about it.

The meeting, organized by the Yukon Government's Emergency Measures Organization (EMO), and hosted by engineering firm Stantec was aimed at gathering feedback from Klondike Valley residents who were impacted by last year's flooding for it's After Action Review.

Flood waters seen at Henderson Corner near Dawson City, Yukon, May 11, 2023.
Flood waters seen at Henderson Corner near Dawson City, Yukon, May 11, 2023.

Flood waters seen at Henderson Corner near Dawson City, Yukon, May 11, 2023. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

But according to one resident that's not why they attended the meeting.

"When I came here I thought this meeting was going to be totally different," said Josie Picard, during the meeting. "I thought you would come with answers."

Instead, a handful of people shared with the room their personal experiences of the flood. They described how communication was lacking throughout the event, and how they're preparing for the next one.

John Mitchell, a member of Dawson's volunteer search and rescue team, was the first one to speak. He pointed out how long it's taken the government to finally organize a meeting to discuss last year's events.

"The flood actually happened in May," he said. "We're eight months from that point in time. I'm wondering what the heck YG (Yukon Government) has been doing in that time?"

"We had an after action report at the end of our operational period in May with some good mitigation steps that were temperature-sensitive. Take a look outside. We missed a whole bunch of stuff we should have been doing," Mitchell said, referring to the fact the ground is now too frozen to start ditching, putting in culverts, or creating berms to channel the water away from properties.

Responders 'overwhelmed'

Rock Creek resident Rian Smith said her family was evacuated from their home for four weeks. She told the room that she was able to safely evacuate from her home which she said she owes to one group in particular.

"One of the reasons we were evacuated in a timely fashion," she said. "We were mostly dealing with wildland fire crews who have obvious experience with identifying values, and people, and resources, and protecting those people."

Smith described feeling taken care of by fire crews, a feeling she didn't get once she tried communicating with government officials.

"Calling the main number that was offered to people who had to evacuate," she said. "I'm not sure what department that would have been. I was received by someone who was very overwhelmed and the advice that I was given kind of callously was 'If you know who to call just call them.'"

"That's not really a helpful way to talk to someone who is in crisis. It just seemed like even the people we were being directed to had no idea who someone should talk to first to get information about evacuating and what the process was."

Friends helped, not crews

Dredge Pond resident Kim Beirnaskie said she woke up to water quickly rising on her property. She said when she tried calling 9-1-1, the call didn't go through. She tried calling a few people as well, but had the same result. She had lost her internet connection which left her stranded, she said.

"I started to freak out."

It was only when her friends came to check on her that she was helped off her property by boat.

"I was responsible for getting myself out," Beirnaskie said. "I called Yukon Energy to cut the electrical because we were really close to anyone in that water getting electrocuted. That was my responsibility."

Biernaskie said no officials came by her house to check on her until after the fact.

An excavator is used to carry people out of a flooded campground near Dawson City, Yukon, May 24, 2023.
An excavator is used to carry people out of a flooded campground near Dawson City, Yukon, May 24, 2023.

An excavator is used to carry people out of a flooded campground near Dawson City, Yukon, May 24, 2023. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

'Just listen'

During a break between stories, Stantec's community planner Zoe Morrison drew names to give away door prizes.

The first person whose name was drawn accepted a gift card to a local store, but others refused the prizes.

Resident Cud Eastbound, for example, won a $25 dollar gift card to BonTon & Co.

"Sorry to interrupt but I don't want anything," he said. "Please give it to someone who got flooded."

And yet another who won ceded their prize to someone else in the room.

After a moment of silence, the meeting resumed.

By this point, some appeared quite frustrated, and said they wished there were government officials actually in the room to hear their stories.

"We've done a number of after action reviews and find that if there's a bunch of Yukon Government people it's really hard for them to just listen," Morrison explained to the room.

"They want to respond to things. So it's not that they don't care about what's happening but we've decided to set this up as a time for people to speak."

Morrison did note that there were a few government representatives attending virtually. However, they stayed silent throughout the meeting.

Eastbound didn't hesitate to share his thoughts about that when it was his turn to speak.

"The fact that YG can't attend a meeting like this," he said. "And I think because you said they like to talk. The fact that Yukon representatives can't come to a meeting like this and shut their mouths and just listen to the people I think says a lot about the structure that's in place."

Effective planning takes time

Julia Duchesne, a spokesperson for the department of Protective Services, didn't attend the meeting but spoke to CBC News in an interview. She said she hears the frustration from residents, especially because flood season is right around the corner.

But Duchesne says developing an effective response plan takes time. Yukon government officials will be in Dawson City within the next few months to talk about preparations for the upcoming flood season, she said.

"We're planning to speak to residents directly, end of February, early March," she told CBC News.

"That's not going to be a report presentation for the After Action Review because it's not going to be ready at that time. But it is going to be more about like what we can expect in the coming season and how to be prepared."