“We’re still at Mother Nature’s mercy.”
Looking back on his community’s helicopter evacuation from Michipicoten First Nation in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, Chief Joe Buckell told Windspeaker that the reserve near Wawa, Ont. has learned an important lesson for the future.
“We’re going to start preparing for this,” he added, describing the helicopters full of escaping reserve residents. “This was just an eye-opener – a lesson.
“We’re working on the plan right now, with the municipality too. We’re all in this together... If it ever happens again, which I hope it doesn’t, we’re prepared.”
When Hurricane Sandy hit with full force on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard –shuttering New York’s famed subway system, shattering neighbourhoods and killing at least 70 people, including two in Canada – its superstorm remnants blazed north across the border.
The people in Michipicoten already knew that weather knows no boundaries. The 700-person community on the shores of Lake Superior already faces its share of storms and wind.
“They tend to get a lot of rough weather right on Lake Superior,” said Bobby Jo Chenier, regional director of the Union of Ontario Indians. “So if there’s any severe weather, they usually get a severe impact.
“There’s been a lot of damage. As with most northern communities, the availability of resources is not always handy... In the long-term, we’re hoping we can offer any support needed.”
That damage ranged from vehicles washed into Lake Superior— “They’re still there; it was a phenomenon!” Buckell said—to washed out roadways, including the Trans-Canada Highway, and collapsed bridges. All told, nearby Wawa’s Mayor Linda Nowicki guessed at the time, the storm cost the community at least $10 million.
Community resident Linda Peterson expressed her gratitude for the support that flowed to evacuated reserve members as they holed up in a Wawa motel awaiting repairs to Michipicoten’s only road.
“Thank you very much for thinking of us,” she wrote on a Facebook page which became a community forum during the crisis. “Happy to report that no one has lost their lives, a lot of damage though, our neighbors who live just off the rez lost their home, their cars washed into the lake.
“They are fine now but I can’t imagine how they feel. My prayers go out to them.”
In the wake of the disaster, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services issued a statement pledging to help rebuilding efforts.
“Our thoughts continue to be with the residents of Wawa, the Michipicoten First Nation, and the surrounding region as they go through this difficult time and work to rebuild,” the ministry said. “The province will continue to help the people of Wawa, the Michipicoten First Nation, and the surrounding communities in every way possible.”
While it’s often a cliché that communities bond in the face of adversity, for Chief Buckell–who flew into the evacuating community from a holiday to take leadership during the disaster–the truth of the statement remains.
“It was a real community effort,” he said. “My staff worked very, very diligently with all the other services–EMO (Emergency Management Ontario), the township, the Ministry of Natural Resources – they did a super job.
“Everybody had to pull together... We’re having a supper to recognize all those people, and to acknowledge who they are – to say, ‘We appreciate what you did; it showed that when a community is in peril, everyone pulls together. Even people who don’t talk to each other!’”
And while cleanup efforts continue, the most important thing is that community members sustained only property damage, with no injury or loss of life, said Union of Ontario Indians Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee.
“They had a pretty disastrous situation up there: roads and bridges wiped out, on the First Nation,” he told Birchbark. “It’s my understanding that a house and possibly vehicles got washed down the stream.
“Houses can be rebuilt and cars can be fixed, but you can’t replace human life. We were very concerned about the safety and well-being of community members.”
But while some media outlets labelled the Wawa and Michipicoten flooding an instance of “freak weather,” for Buckell the lessons about environmental sustainability seem obvious, and should be heeded as a warning of worse extremes to come.
“We never expected to see it,” he said, “but we could see it here.
“With climate change, the weather patterns are changing. We chalk it up to Mother Nature showing her wrath.”