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High water created Hay River
Fifty years ago, Vale Island residents watched as houses floated away

Myles Dolphin
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 6, 2013

Imagine waking up in your bed, stretching vigorously and going downstairs for breakfast. With a warm bowl of porridge in hand, you look out the window to see what the weather is like. The last thing you might expect to see are houses being swept away by water.

Yet, that's exactly what Vale Island residents witnessed 50 years ago this week, during the worst flood in Hay River's history.

The local newspaper at the time, Tapwe, reported the events despite having its offices flooded as a result of the Hay River breakup.

"The Hay River angrily tore this island community adrift Wednesday in an unprecedented flood from which the town has not yet recovered," the newspaper stated on the front page of its May 3 issue.

According to the paper, a force of water built up behind a 19-kilometre-long ice jam just above the town. When the ice jam burst, the flood hit the island at approximately 7:40 a.m. on May 1. The damage was extensive and beyond most people's comprehension. Houses were upside down, boats floated aimlessly in the streets and telephone poles were down.

The CBC Mackenzie network went off the air as did the telegraph, telephone and microwave communication. The airstrip was under water and the causeway link to the Mackenzie Highway had been washed out in two places.

Vale Island was on its own and badly in need of assistance.

"Fort Smith and Yellowknife were slow in realizing the seriousness of the situation on Vale Island, but by (later) Wednesday morning were rallying to provide food, blankets, clothing, cigarettes and other supplies to the stricken town," Tapwe reported.

About 120 people were evacuated to Yellowknife within a week and more than 400 went to Fort Smith.

More than 700 Vale Island residents gathered into the Federal Day School, which had not flooded. There were fears of a typhoid outbreak in the community, so a supply of anti-typhoid vaccine was flown in by helicopter.

In its May 10 issue, Tapwe reported a survey of 100 households that revealed 97 of them favoured moving the town to the mainland. Hay River was incorporated as a town on June 16 of that year.

Flood damage was assessed at $615,000, according to the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories at the time, Gordon Robertson.

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