An aerial view of flooding at Jessica Pumphrey’s farm taken by a local pilot. (Submitted/Jessica Pumphrey)

An aerial view of flooding at Jessica Pumphrey’s farm taken by a local pilot. (Submitted/Jessica Pumphrey)

Flood evacuee criticizes emergency response to Yukon’s Klondike River flooding

Jessica Pumphrey is hopeful that the Yukon government’s upcoming flood relief program will help

A vegetable farmer who left her home and property located near Dawson City is devastated by the destruction to her farm caused by Klondike River flooding — and critical of the emergency response.

Jessica Pumphrey owns and operates River and Roots Farm in Henderson Corner, which was one of the places hardest hit by flooding this spring.

Pumphrey, along with her two dogs and two cats, has been thankful for being set up at the Triple J Hotel in Dawson since they can’t stay at home on the farm.

She is one of 82 evacuees who have registered with the Yukon government’s emergency support services due to flooding in the Klondike region as of May 29, according to territorial government officials. The health department said by email there are still 30 evacuees as of June 1. Many evacuees are staying in hotels and private accommodations. Access to groceries, meals, clothing and medications has been provided.

What Pumphrey described as “extensive and widespread” flooding of her 9.5-acre property began around 10:30 p.m. on May 7.

“There was just too much water,” she said.

Pumphrey feared for her safety, given the rate at which the river was rising and its bizarre behaviour due to ice jams.

“There was a lot of anxiety,” she said.

“I was sleeping in the truck with all the animals because I wasn’t sure where to go [or] if I was considered an evacuee.”

Yukon Energy Corporation turned off power in the area on May 8, she said.

Pumphrey said there was no organization to check in on people like her who had no working phone line, no cell service and no internet connection at the time. Without any lines of communication to call for help and find out if it was safe for her to stay or if she must leave the property, the next day and a half were “truly stressful” for her.

She said she didn’t know what to do.

“That was quite concerning,” she said.

Flooding in the area has been more severe than in previous years, according to the territory’s flood information officer.

On May 8, the Yukon government activated the emergency coordination centre in response to the flood situation, according to officials. A tactical evacuation — which is a recommendation, not an order — of 20 properties in the Rock Creek area took place on May 8.

An incident management team made up of representatives from multiple governments and emergency service providers — led by the Yukon government and including the City of Dawson, Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation, Klondike Valley Fire Department and territorial government agencies — was put together on May 12 to respond to ice jam flooding in Rock Creek and Henderson Corner. The team stood down on May 18 before being reactivated on May 24 to deal with freshet flooding throughout the Klondike Valley.

Pumphrey said a volunteer firefighter and a neighbour waded in through deep water to help her lift books, important documents and electronics to a higher level in her house on May 9.

“It wasn’t even a formal response,” she said.

“They happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Pumphrey has briefly returned to the site since being evacuated. She said it’s a total loss of farm equipment.

Her topsoil had been cleared, fencing had been flattened and underground irrigation had been ripped up. All three of her greenhouses had been displaced, vegetable coolers had been smashed and stands had been taken away. The septic field had been overrun. The back wall of her garage had been destroyed and the structure itself was almost full of water. Full-grown trees had toppled over, and willow trees and brush holding the ground in place had been negatively affected. Her house is also damaged as water keeps seeping in — with no power or place to pump the water out to.

“The list goes on,” she said.

“There’s really nothing that hasn’t been damaged or completely destroyed.”

While it was tough for her to make a livelihood prior to flooding, now Pumphrey has a mortgage on a property that she can no longer live or farm at. She said she “cannot carry a mortgage” while looking for a rental with four pets. She feels like she wasn’t given any notice about the situation and didn’t know what to take and leave behind.

She doesn’t know what flood relief the Yukon government is cooking up or how it will help her and her neighbours out. Premier Ranj Pillai has promised more details on flood relief for businesses and properties are to come.

“It’s put me in a really tricky position,” Pumphrey said.

She said the previous property owners had created a berm that had been breached by flood waters. This upcoming growing season would have been her third at that location. She generally pulls in about $10,000 from farming vegetables and originally purchased the property for $460,000.

Pumphrey said there is “not a lot of point” in restoring and repairing the property if money doesn’t go towards building a new protective barrier to replace the berm. She said she believes it might be best if she vacates and a new berm is built to protect people that remain in the area since it’s one of the lowest-lying properties. Her idea of a win-win situation is to have her mortgage bought out and then use the property to benefit everyone else, including the North Klondike Highway that her driveway connects to.

“Dawson as a whole has really come together as best they can,” she said.

According to the June 1 advisory, the water levels on the Klondike River are still high and its recession has slowed. The situation, which is stabilizing, has been downgraded to a high-streamflow advisory. The river may rise again, and a large precipitation event could still present a flood risk.

Pumphrey suggested the Yukon government needs to be better prepared to deal with climate change and respond to emergencies.

“I think there are quite a few lessons that are going to be taken away, hopefully, from this situation, like maybe we create community muster points,” she said.

“I also would hope that there’s some long-term planning for disaster relief on the government’s part because I don’t think these are isolated incidents anymore, and they’re going to continue to happen.”

In a statement from Community Services, communications director Wayne Potoroka said residents with suggestions or concerns should contribute to a review of the flooding situation when the time comes.

“There will be time for a detailed after-action review of this flooding incident as we do in other disaster scenarios, in order to learn from what went well and to identify any gaps,” he said.

“This will be done after the response has concluded and recovery efforts are well underway.”

Potoroka said there was no indication of a communication breakdown during the early response. However, the Yukon government understands the situation can be hectic as the circumstances are assessed and resources are assembled so responders can safely work.

“This situation underscores why the Yukon government returns to perennial messaging around flood preparedness and encourages communities and residents to prepare,” he said.

He said the muster point for the area was always the Klondike Valley Firehall.

“When the ice broke, the water rose quickly. People needed to get out immediately, and everyone was compliant. There was no need to forcibly remove anyone. The local incident management team officials worked with those impacted, and supports were in place to offer alternative accommodations,” he said.

“Overall, the people on the ground demonstrated their ability to manage the situation, and we’re proud of their efforts.”

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