Home for Christmas: Couple evacuated after floods return to Lake Laberge residence

“It makes you appreciate what you have.”

At the height of the summer flooding, Andrea and Florian Lempher had to abandon their home on the shore of Lake Laberge. (Crystal Schick/Independent)

At the height of the summer flooding, Andrea and Florian Lempher had to abandon their home on the shore of Lake Laberge. (Crystal Schick/Independent)

Andrea and Florian Lemphers will be opening more boxes than usual this Christmas.

The couple were forced to evacuate their home last summer, when catastrophic flooding in the southern Yukon caused water from nearby Lake Laberge to rise by seven feet. They didn’t know they wouldn’t be returning for almost five months.

But on Dec. 16, around 24 weeks after they were forced to abandon their property, Lemphers was back to light the fireplaces. The plan is to be moved back in for Christmas.

“Unpacking will be just like opening presents, because we forget what’s in a lot of them. We had a whole bunch of people rushing in and out packing boxes, and I haven’t got a clue as to what’s in what at all,” said Florian Lemphers.

The couple were forced to evacuate their home last summer, when flooding in southern Yukon caused water levels around their home on the edge of Lake Labarge to rise by seven feet. The couple have lived off Shallow Bay Road for 38 years.

“All kinds of people from all over the world come to visit us there. We can watch the northern lights, often just lying in bed, and looking out the window,” said Lemphers.

As they turned away from those memories on July 14, leaving their home behind in hip waders and trailing a canoe carrying one of their dogs behind them, Lemphers said they didn’t know if they would be able to return.

After the government called for an evacuation order, the couple had to quickly pack their belongings and find a new place to live. Other nearby homes were facing evacuation alerts and boil water advisories as lakes and rivers continued to rise.

The Lempherss moved in with friends in a garage suite, just three minutes down the road, where they could still check on the home and see hordes of volunteers continue to fill sandbags to battle the rising water.

“It gave us a sense of hope,” Lemphers said of the volunteers. “And it really made it easier to deal with the tragedy of, you know, confronting the fact that you might lose your place. All these people kind of showed up out of nowhere and started working.

“It makes you appreciate what you have. And it makes you appreciate that sense of community spirit there is in the Yukon when things get tough. People emerge out of nowhere,” he said.

Without the help of volunteers who showed up to sandbag for hours — at one point forming a human chain of 40 people — the home may not have been recoverable. Lemphers estimates the berm circling the home that held back the worst of the water had around 27,000 bags.

As it was, the Lemphers were able to access flood insurance but had to deal with a driveway that had disappeared in addition to a flooded crawlspace, mold, sodden insulation and vapour barriers that had to be completely removed.

The repair work is almost completed, and the couple has been told they’ll be able to move back in for Christmas. After five months they’ll be able to move out of their friend’s garage and begin collecting their belongings that have been stored with relatives and friends.

The work isn’t over. Lemphers said they have to prepare for it to happen again, which means looking at installing technology to manage groundwater risks. Lempherss said they are hoping to install a solar-powered dewatering system that will actively move the groundwater.

“We’d never seen anything like that. The 2007 flood was nothing compared to this. To see water come up seven feet in a month, it’s just ridiculous. We’re resigned to the future where we’re going to have to try and mitigate damage.

“You have to be realistic that the future is going to be unpredictable and we are going to get more weather events,” he said.

Lemphers already has ideas about diverting the groundwater into a greenhouse. He said between the floods and COVID-19 it’s been a difficult year of adaptation around the globe. But for now, the couple is relieved to be home for the holidays.

There will be no international visitors this year — Lemphers said they are planning a quiet Christmas at home, with around 30 to 40 boxes to unpack.

“It’ll be a big job. But a very, very pleasant job.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com