Don’t like moving? Try relocating your sinking house during a pandemic


For many in the North, it can feel like the COVID-19 pandemic has brought life to a standstill; people are isolated, services are shut down and social gatherings are cancelled. 

Coastal erosion in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., however, isn’t taking a break. As global temperatures rise, the coastline at Tuktoyaktuk retreats further inland, threatening lost homes without multimillion dollar investment in relocation and other mitigation efforts.

As the community of about 1,000 people braced for the health threat sweeping the globe, contractors moved four houses at risk of falling into the ocean because of the eroding coast. Noella Cockney’s house was one of them. She said at first, her family had “no idea” if constantly changing guidelines around COVID-19 would impact the move.

“We left everything for the last minute, just in case they said, ‘No, we can’t move your houses just because everything that’s going on,” Cockney said. 

If it did get postponed, she feared the worst.

Having a view of the Arctic Ocean, right outside my bedroom window … I’m going to miss that.– Noel Cockney

“Being right on the edge, I knew — this summer it would end up in the ocean.”

Guidelines around COVID-19 were changing quickly. As early as March 22, the territory’s chief public health officer advised all gatherings be cancelled. So when Cockney’s family was told to move out by March 28, Cockney said they packed up as quickly as they could. 

Her 83-year-old mother Lucy had to do the same. She lived next door, and her house was moved as well.

In the midst of the change, Cockney was worried about how to keep her mother safe if COVID-19 did spread.

Noella Cockney’s house on the right, her mother Lucy’s in the centre, and the house of her friend Sarah Adams were all successfully relocated to Reindeer Point in Tuktoyaktuk from their previous locations on the Arctic Ocean shoreline. (Submitted by Noella Cockney)

As the first case of COVID-19 outside Yellowknife was announced in Inuvik, N.W.T., her mother decided to head out to the family cabin in Husky Lakes, a springtime family tradition that gave her some convenient distance from town. 

“We wanted to get her out of town just in case something happened,” Cockney said.

How to tow a home in an Arctic landscape

The move involved planning and some ingenuity from E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd., a local construction company, according to Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Edwin Elias.

Noel Cockney, here pictured on a rock wall in Yosemite National Park in California, says that the relocation of the houses in his hometown is a reminder of climate change’s impact. (Submitted by Noel Cockney)

The company built winter roads along the ocean and, using the thick sea ice, towed the houses toward their new plots without interfering with community power lines or roads.

“It could have been really, really bad. I’m so happy we were able to put them into a safe place now,” Elias said.

“We’re pretty pleased with all the work that’s been done to date and all the work that made this possible.”

Elias said that because a local contractor did the work and “all the resources in the community had already been ordered,” the pandemic didn’t cause any logistical problems.  

Three of the four homes were moved with federal funding.

According to the territorial government’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs, the hamlet is currently working on a plan to protect the peninsula from further erosion. Funding for that plan still needs to be secured, said spokesperson Trista Haughland in an email.

For Cockney’s son Noel Cockney, the relocation is bittersweet.

“I grew up in those houses,” he said.

“Having a view of the Arctic Ocean, right outside my bedroom window … I’m going to miss that whenever I’m visiting. But it’s happy to know that they’re in a safer spot now.”

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