How rumours almost led to an evacuation of Chisasibi

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Chisasibi Public Safety Officer Brian Wadden was settling down at home to watch a movie just before 9 pm September 1, when he received a call from his mother telling him there was a problem with the LG-2 dam.

“She told me, ‘There is an evacuation, are you aware?’” Wadden said.

He told her there was no such emergency. But he immediately called the fire department and then decided to go there in person.

After arriving, the phone calls started coming in. Being in close contact with the Chisasibi detachment of the Eeyou/Eenou Police Force (EEPF), Wadden was informed they also had a flood of over 50 phone calls in an hour from concerned residents.

It took Chisasibi authorities 30 to 45 minutes to receive verification from Hydro-Québec (HQ) that a dam breach was not in progress and the evacuation notice was false. By then it was too late, as the bogus warning had spread widely on social media.

Chisasibi Chief Davey Bobbish said that for days after the incident Chisasibi residents were telling him their frightful stories of that night.

“People were calling each other and knocking on doors to make sure they evacuated,” Bobbish said. “Some families were getting calls from other communities telling them to get to the high grounds. People were panicking.”

One of Wadden’s main concerns that night was over the reckless endangerment he witnessed with panic-stricken community members driving over lawns and sidewalks trying to get out of town.

Wadden was thankful no further incidents occurred as he witnessed cars passing slower vehicles and driving at speeds up to 80 km/h in town.

How likely is a dam breach?

Joseph Warde, Hydro-Québec project manager for the department of dams and infrastructure, dam safety division, has worked at the crown corporation for 26 years. He told the Nation that the risk of a breach is almost zero considering their strict surveillance, monitoring and maintenance – and that there has never been a breach at a HQ facility.

“Electricity is our core business and we will do anything in order to keep the dam safe,” Warde said. “A breach doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen quickly. It takes a long time before a dam breaches, especially a huge dam like the ones in James Bay.”

Warde added that a dam failure doesn’t occur suddenly. He compared it to a sick person, stating there would be symptoms indicating that something is wrong.

“I can compare it to the pyramids of Egypt that have lasted for 5000 years,” Warde added. “A dam is designed and constructed to last forever, for as long as we need it.”

If a breach did occur, Wadden said it would take 2 hours and 14 minutes for the floodwater to hit the town but would then take another couple of hours for the flood to go full scale.

“So all together we would have about five hours to evacuate the community,” Wadden said.

Emergency plan

Wadden called this incident “an eye opener” and said he is taking this opportunity to further develop Chisasibi’s emergency preparedness plan and to develop better evacuation routes.

These plans would include constructing alternative evacuation routes to the “high ground” – the designated safety spot that all community members are directed to in the case of a flood.

Wadden would also like to add sirens at key locations and introduce evacuation drills.

Once these emergency procedures are updated and implemented, Wadden said the next step is to better inform the public. That way people will know what is expected of them in the case of an emergency and will help to reduce anxiety and panic.

He also emphasised that people should be more careful where they get their information and that a declaration of a state of emergency can only come from the Chief.

“My advice would be to wait for the emergency services to declare an emergency,” Wadden said and added that people can call the police or public safety to verify if an emergency evacuation is occurring and not to act on what they read on social media.

Chief Bobbish said that they are taking the matter seriously and an investigation is underway by the EEPF to find out how the rumours started.

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