Fort Vermilion residents return home after flood evacuation orders lifted

Click to play video 'Fort Vermilion evacuees return home to severe flood damage' Fort Vermilion evacuees return home to severe flood damage
WATCH ABOVE: Mackenzie County's reeve said about 150 homes and 20 businesses were damaged in the Peace River flooding. On Monday, residents were allowed into the flood zone to begin the clean-up process. Sarah Ryan reports. – May 4, 2020

Residents in northwestern Alberta forced out by floods last week are being allowed to return home.

At 8 a.m. Monday, evacuation orders were lifted for residents of Fort Vermilion, Buttertown and Beaver Ranch. About 450 people were forced from their homes more than a week ago after an ice jam on the Peace River led to flooding in Mackenzie County.

In all, about 150 homes and 20 businesses were flooded, according to Reeve Josh Knelsen.

READ MORE: Evacuations ordered in Fort Vermilion as Peace River breaches banks

In an update on Facebook Sunday night, officials with Mackenzie County said residents are allowed to return home if they choose, but they can also stay in the accommodations they were provided. Once evacuees check out of their accommodations though, the county said they may not be allowed to return.

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Officials warned residents to return with caution, as there are sinkholes throughout the community, which are marked by ribbon, stakes and spray paint. People are asked not to move markers and pylons that are placed around the community, as they are there for safety reasons.

Sara Schmidt was one of the first to head back into the flood zone Monday morning.

“Coming in I was bracing for the worst, and it was worse than I thought it would be,” she said.

Every room in her home was in disarray. She brought in a tractor to haul all of her destroyed furniture to the dumpster.

“I’m pretty sure my trailer will be a write off,” Schmidt said.

“Nothing was where it belonged, everything was covered in mud.”

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She said the last week has been a roller coaster of emotions.

“I feel almost cold. Like I just want to throw it all away and start over, because the decisions are really hard.”

Knelsen said starting the cleanup has been traumatic for many evacuees.

“It’s one thing to lose a couch set, right? But when you have something from a loved one that’s precious and it’s been in the family for however long, and it’s really dear to you — it’s not about the value of losing something, it’s about losing something that can’t be replaced,” he explained.

Ray Toews owns several businesses in town, including a hardware store. He said he was allowed in to assess the damage over the weekend and found nothing but mud and destruction.

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“It’s just astonishing how things float around. Things from one department are way at the other end of the store,” he said Monday.

“You can imagine all the little pieces in a hardware store and almost everything is packed in cardboard, has cardboard backings. That’s all destroyed, that’s all gone.

“A week ago, I had a beautiful store. I loved that store. It was working well.”

Toews lives above the hardware store and said his house was not damaged.

“I have a place to live, which is more than a lot of people in this town can say. There’s a lot of people that are really homeless around.”

Toews believes about half of the inventory in his hardware store has been destroyed. He also owns a cannabis store where he said some products can be saved. His daughter owns a gas station and convenience store, which he said was hit the hardest. Nothing in the convenience store is salvageable, he said.

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He said all he can do now is take in what’s happened and move on.

“The Canadian Rangers are here helping us, Samaritan’s Purse is here helping us, Mennonite Disaster Services. I have some incredible friends who have spent the last three days helping me, cleaning things up and doing stuff — it’s been incredible,” he said.

“We’re survivors. We’ll get by here. We’re tough people, used to living in the north.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray lifts all flood-related mandatory evacuation orders

Meals will be provided by the Salvation Army to evacuees and volunteers on Monday. Officials with the county said wristbands are required and meals can be picked up in Fort Vermilion at the Fort Vermilion Community Cultural Complex.

The Northern Lights Gas Co-op is inspecting gas lines in the community over the next few days. Anyone who smells gas should immediately call the NLGC.

Starting at noon Monday, all Albertans forced to flee their homes due to floods can begin applying for provincial emergency support funding. All eligible adults will receive $1,250, while those under 18 can apply for $500 in funding.

READ MORE: Jason Kenney announces emergency funding for northern Alberta flood evacuees

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Those returning home are asked to use the provided garbage bins/dumpsters for furniture and household garbage. “White” goods — fridges, freezers, coolers — as well as chemicals and electronics should be left on the curb for pick up. Crews will be picking them up throughout the day, according to the county.

Anyone with questions or concerns should call the Mackenzie County Incident Command Post at 780-927-3718.