The Northern Ontario community of Wawa could be under a state of emergency for two or three weeks, perhaps longer, after a severe rain storm washed away buildings and wrecked essential portions of the Trans-Canada Highway over the course of 24 hours.
Mayor Linda Nowicki said the storm has destroyed major portions of Highway 17 to the north and south of Wawa, about 220 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie, as well as the municipal Harbour Road which is used by the Michipicoten First Nation about 16 kilometres outside Wawa.
“We will continue the state of emergency so that we are authorized to assist them and we have all of the emergency services from the province and the federal government in place to assist them,” Ms. Nowicki said.
The southbound stretch of Highway 17 to Sault Ste. Marie is expected to reopen Monday, she said.
The mayor estimates that rebuilding the washed out roads could cost about $10-million to $15-million – money she says the municipality simply does not have.
“We will be begging from the province and even the federal government. This is a huge, huge loss for us,” she said. “It’s not manageable by a small community such as ourselves.”
Highway 17 is a major commercial route. Ms. Novicki said that a private company contracted by the province estimates it could take a week to rebuild it. While it’s out of commission, commercial traffic has doubled on Highway 11, according to the Ontario Provincial Police. Residents are unable to easily access Highway 11 as it is a secondary highway that connects to Highway 101, which is down to one lane because of the storm.
“Those two routes are very vital to the commerce of Canada – Highway 11 and Highway 17,” said OPP Inspector Mark Andrews. “If you’re travelling by truck or moving any goods or services by truck across this country …those are your only two options, and right now, we’re only down to one.”
The mayor realized the severity of the situation when a resident called her late Thursday night asking about sand bags. Then, a reporter called her to show her pictures of flooding in and around the town’s only hospital, the Lady Dunn Health Centre. That’s when town officials decided to declare a state of emergency.
On Saturday afternoon, Emergency Management Ontario posted a note on their website to say that 12 vulnerable residents of the Michipicoten First Nation were airlifted out of their community and taken to Wawa. The Wawa municipality is recommending the evacuation because the First Nations community of about 65 people will otherwise likely be stranded for several weeks. Repairs could take so long “because of the extent of the damage and the lack of resources we have to get it fixed,” said Ms. Nowicki.
Some residents were also airlifted from their homes because the roads leading to their homes were washed out. Wawa’s Ford car dealership lost its parking lot and the Northern Lights Motel and Breakfast was also destroyed by the rain, according to Theresa Williams, a receptionist at the town’s community centre. Ms. Williams said the people being evacuated were being brought to the community centre. Several residents and the Calvary Pentecostal Church have opened their doors to people who have been forced out of their homes, she said.
Ms. Nowicki said it was miraculous that nobody was injured in the storm. The only accident was when a truck carrying batteries was forced to come to a full stop, and as it did so, batteries spilled out requiring a special clean up.
Several creeks which run through Wawa to Lake Superior are overflowing, and provincial police received a report of a resident being washed into the lake from a creek, said Insp. Andrews.
Ms. Williams said a couple whose home on the edge of Lake Superior was washed away into the lake. The couple who lived in it with their cat and dog managed to get out in time, she said.
People in the Missanabie and Hawk regions lost 911 service, but they have been provided satellite phones so they can still access emergency services.
“It’s not a good picture,” said Insp. Andrews. “… when water decides to go somewhere, there’s not much that can stand in its way.”
The helicopter service to airlift people is being provided by a private, local company, and Ms. Nowicki hopes the province will pick up the tab. She said EMO covers some additional expenses incurred by a municipality during an emergency.
The rain started beating down on the Land of the Big Goose, known for a landmark goose sculpture situated over the junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 101, on Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, it was falling fast, in sheets accompanied by thunder, lightning and high winds.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen rain like that,” said Ms. Williams, 48.
Ms. Nowicki said “it got very, very dark, all of a sudden,” and it looked like it was 9 p.m. at night. Showers continued on and off throughout the day Thursday. Many people experienced power outages in their homes for about an hour, said Ms. Williams.
Michael Mantha, the NDP MPP for the Algoma-Manitoulin region, said Saturday evening that he had been to Wawa twice this weekend to survey the damage. He called for an immediate response and aid to the people of Wawa, and the communities surrounding it.
“Now, with the water that has finally ran and receded, we are able to do an evaluation of the damage and it is much greater than everyone had anticipated,” Mr. Mantha said. “They’re going to be in desperate need of support and resources and it’s fairly significant as far as the damage that’s happened there.”
Ms. Nowicki said the town of 2,600 people is in desperate need of trucks to carry sandbags, gravel and other equipment.
With a report from The Canadian Press