Dual Crisis: Fort McMurray residents struggle with flooding and COVID-19

Written by: Angelo Cruz

Residents of Fort McMurray face hardship as 13,000 people have been forced to leave their homes due to the flood while trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The area’s problems began on March 20, when the municipality declared a local state of emergency in the hope to combat the virus. Unfortunately, an outbreak of the virus occurred in an oil sand’s work camp north of the city.

Weeks later on April 26 the water levels in the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers rose to extremely high levels, and the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo put in evacuation orders as the situation in the area got worse.

During the springtime, the ice in the five local rivers begin to thaw, which brings worry and anxiety to the residents in the area as they worry about potential ice jams.

The ice levels were high, and as a result the water in the Athabasca and Clearwater river rose, resulting in the riverbanks overflowing.

Almost all of the streets in the lower townsite area remains under mandatory evacuation, with access to the downtown section cut off. Residents who have left are also unable to return.

As of this moment, there are a reported 6,000 people registered at the two evacuation centres, with that number expected to grow according to the municipality.

To assist with the social distancing encouraged during this time, evacuees are being placed in hotels and work camps that will provide personal space.

A call for help

On April 27, Mayor Don Scott of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo announced that they have “requested assistance from the federal government as we face this new crisis” through his Facebook page.

The federal government was aware of the situation when it unfolded according to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and are now looking for ways to help the community during this time.

With the flood and forest fires being common in the area during this time, the current COVID-19 pandemic has posed a challenge for their planning according to Freeland.

“We have been gearing up for those from the outset and this is an issue we are looking at urgently today”.

Forecasters say that water levels are expected to fall once the ice jams that caused the flooding melts, but the timing for when that happens is unpredictable.

Despite the hardships, Scott has stated that the population had faced adversity like this before, as they’ve been forced to evacuate before due to the wildfire that forced a city-wide evacuation in 2016.

“If there’s any place that can face challenges, it’s ours”.

On April 29, the Government of Alberta announced an emergency financial support to evacuees from Northern Alberta due to the spring flood situation. Starting May 4, residents affected can apply for this funding support, $1,250 per adult, and $500 per dependent child. 

Exemptions for social distancing and health plans

In the effort to minimize the damage caused by the flooding, residents who are workers or just volunteering have been exempt from the social distancing requirement.

Those who are exempt from the social distancing measures are allowed to gather outside and work in groups of 15 or more people for flood prevention work such as sandbagging and pumping.

Even with the exemption, Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw has stated that all public health orders are still in effect and have recommended that the volunteers and workers wear protective equipment during the flood.

Hinshaw also stated that they anticipated a situation like this would occur, and that they’re working with the provincial operation centre regarding the health standards.

“Our teams at health have been working with the provincial operation centre to make sure that there are considerations – for example, evacuation centres, that we are considering the physical distancing measures and sanitation measures that need to be put in place to prevent the spread of COVID,” said Hinshaw.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney showed his support for the residents on his Twitter account, thanking the helpers during this time and that masks are being shipped to the area.

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