‘A HUGE, HORRIBLE TRAGEDY’
For many Fort McMurray residents, rebuilding their lives proves easier than rebuilding their homes, Postmedia’s Janet French reports.
FORT MCMURRAY • Nobody thought rebuilding this northern Alberta city would be easy.
Not for one moment. Not with a tenth of the city — 2,579 houses, condos, apartments, townhouses and businesses — reduced to rubble in pockets of destruction stretching from one end to the other.
Not with the terrifying memories still so fresh from the May 3, 2016, evacuation, which forced 88,000 people past walls of flame and saw families separated in the sudden exodus north and south.
Not with the lessons from the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire that made it clear recovering from a natural disaster of this scale happens in years, not months.
But as the anniversary of the evacuation looms, there are questions about why the first year of rebuilding has been so hard for some.
On the one hand, the signs of recovery are all over the city, from the busy downtown core in the river valley to the subdivisions built on the hills north and south of the Athabasca River.
The sight of people wearing white hazmat suits and breathing masks, which made the city look like a scene from a sci-fi movie in the early days of recovery, has been replaced with workers in overalls swinging hammers. Crews dotted the outsides of dozens of new homes in the Abasand neighbourhood on a recent April afternoon, tackling various phases of framing and siding.
In some parts of Fort McMurray, the pace of reconstruction is moving at a steady clip. Impressive, but far from universal.
Jessica Rejman is one homeowner who would like to leave. But she feels compelled to stay because her house is plunging in value.
She lives in Waterways, Fort McMurray’s oldest neighbourhood, 85 per cent of which was razed in the fire. From her front porch, she once looked out on duplexes, a corner store and a neighbour’s house decked out with bold Christmas decorations. Now the scene is a lone house under construction and a few For Sale signs on muddy, empty lots.
“This is the most historical part of the city,” Rejman says. “This is your heart right here. And they’re just kind of letting nothing happen.”
The relative quiet of Waterways is in stark contrast to the burst of construction just a few minutes’ drive away in Abasand, and across the Athabasca River in the Stone Creek and Wood Buffalo neighbourhoods.
By April 7, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo had issued 645 building permits post-wildfire, inspected 424 newly poured foundations and given a final thumbs-up to 28 new builds.
The municipality has spent $147.7 million on recovery so far. As of Jan. 31, the wildfire and rebuild has cost the Alberta government an additional $743 million.
Yet, many people who want to be home won’t be any time soon. It hounds Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake at every waking hour.
“Folks who’ve lost their home have gone through a huge, horrible tragedy,” Blake said in an April interview while looking out of her seventh-floor office window in Fort McMurray’s downtown. “Every single memory that they could ever have was probably in that domain.
But, some of the ones that are dealing with worse circumstances are the ones that didn’t lose their homes, that have extensive damage, that are still not back in their dwellings.”
An estimated 500 structures were damaged, but not destroyed, by fire or firefighting efforts.
Some of those owners say they wish their homes had burned instead.
Lisa Nichols’ Beacon Hill house was spared the flames, but her family hasn’t been able to return home.
After being waterbombed during the fire, Nichols says, the moisture bowed ceilings and swelled drywall. There are cracks on the outside of the house, the external walls are discoloured and windows leaked all winter.
An air conditioner left on during the evacuation sucked soot and toxins into the house. Cracked stucco released cancer-causing asbestos into the home, which now needs abatement, she said. Nichols paid $10,000 out of pocket for environmental tests, which found unsafe arsenic levels.
Her family’s insurance company is fighting her on every expense, she said. She’s called every contractor in town. They estimate repair costs between $75,000 and $110,000. The insurance company has rejected every estimate, she said, and insists the family use a handpicked contractor that intends to perform superficial repairs Nichols believes are inadequate.
Now the two sides are at an impasse. She’s looking into a dispute resolution process, and talking to a lawyer.
That could prompt more out-of-pocket expenses at a time when her insurer has said it will no longer pay for the apartment she, her boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter are renting.
“I’m absolutely dumbfounded. You pay your premiums to an insurance company so that when something like this happens, your home can be fixed and your asset is protected,” Nichols said. “They have done nothing but completely fail us.”
On top of her insurance woes, Nichols was diagnosed with breast cancer last October.
A similar story can be found in Abasand. Coral Brown’s house sits untouched, surrounded by rumbling diggers and trucks. A red “Restricted Use” notice is taped to her front door, which, when opened, reveals several rooms in shambles.
Heavy equipment operators demolished three houses to the north of hers to create a fire break to protect more properties.
They punctured her wall in the process. Restoration workers and engineers have subsequently pulled apart her kitchen and interior walls to get a better look at the damage.
The first delay in returning was tied to health concerns about potential toxins that kept residents of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways away until mid-fall 2016. Once Brown had access to her house, it took another 10 weeks to get an engineer’s report declaring her house structurally sound. However, when water started leaking through the foundation, she called in more engineers.
Brown, her husband, and their three kids are underinsured, she said, meaning their policy doesn’t cover all the expenses and damage they’ve incurred from the fire. Nearly a year after she fled her home in a panic, convinced she and her daughter were going to burn to death stuck in traffic, dealing with the insurance company has become her full-time job.
She’s now in touch with the company’s ombudsperson.
Now on her fifth adjuster, Brown is struggling to compile lists of everything the family lost to smoke and ash.
“I hate to say it, because I sound insensitive to people who lost their homes, but, looking back now, I honestly wish it would have burnt,” Brown said. “It’s been almost a year. I’m no further ahead. I don’t know the state of my house. I don’t know the future of my house.”
The insurance claim process has become long and frustrating for many people who suffered significant damage, said Bill Adams, vice-president, western and Pacific, for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
The trade association has never faced a Canadian disaster on this scale, he said. Residents of Wood Buffalo filed an unprecedented 48,000 claims for property and vehicle damage.
A study estimates insurers are on the hook for nearly $4 billion worth of claims.
“Every step along the way there’s been delays,” Adams said from Calgary.
“In aggregate, it’s created a high level of frustration for people who still have open insurance claims.”
The insurance bureau is in the midst of determining how many claims have been settled and are still open.
General Insurance OmbudService, which helps resolve disputes between consumers and insurance companies, has received 160 calls from people in Fort McMurray during the last decade, 107 of which came after the wildfire, executive director Brian Maltman said in an email.
Service Alberta also has 95 open investigations into complaints about business practices involving the Fort McMurray rebuild, press secretary Tina Faiz said.
Fort McMurray lawyer Don Scott’s office has had more than 500 people with questions about their insurance coverage and rebuilding arrangements since the wildfire, Scott said.
The former MLA and current mayoral candidate said the fire was an opportunity for “insurance companies not to act like insurance companies.”
Though many people have had claims go smoothly, he sees the folks who are struggling.
“This situation right now has the potential to destroy many lives if insurance companies don’t act properly,” Scott said. “You get insurance for a purpose, and not every insurance company is living up to the promises they make.”
Lacie Jennings says rebuilding her mental health after losing almost everything in the fire — her baby book, her engagement ring and her favourite duvet — is at about 80 per cent.
The physical rebuild of her life is at zero per cent.
Jennings, 35, and her husband lost their duplex in the Stone Creek neighbourhood, a newer suburb on Fort McMurray’s north side. Although the couple returned to the city in mid-June last year, their attached neighbours couldn’t decide if they wanted to rebuild their half of the structure.
“It was a big ordeal at the end,” she said.
When the neighbours decided to sell, it was too late for Jennings and her husband to pour a foundation before the ground froze. It was a big disappointment to Jennings, who hoped to be in her own house when daughter Parker was born April 9.
Some duplex owners had double the obstacles to reconstruction. According to a “frequently asked questions” list on the municipality’s website, some insurance policies would only cover the replacement of another duplex or townhouse, not a free-standing home. Fortunately, Jennings’ lot is large enough for a free-standing house, and her insurance policy will allow it. She hopes the foundation will be poured by June.
NEIGHBOURHOOD IN LIMBO
Then, there is Waterways, where the risk of flooding and a landslide have stalled ebuilding substantially.
The decimated neighbourhood is “one of the most challenging areas for us to give the best rebuilding possibilities to,” Blake said.
First, as the name implies, Waterways is on a flood plain. Before the municipality allowed rebuilding, council needed assurance from the provincial government that residents would be eligible for disaster assistance if their properties flooded, Blake said. After receiving
THIS IS YOUR HEART (OF THE CITY). AND THEY’RE JUST KIND OF LETTING NOTHING HAPPEN.
that assurance, the municipality still requires property owners to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk of flood before starting construction.
Another snafu — some newly built replacement mobile homes didn’t fit onto small lots in the Ptarmigan Court Trailer Park at Waterways’ north tip, Blake said.
Now, a study of the hill leading down to the southwest edge of the neighbourhood indicates the slope is unstable after fire tore through the forest there. It found 34 privately owned lots are at risk of slipping down the hill.
Municipal administrators gave councillors three options — buy the land from affected property owners, allow owners to rebuild with foundations fortified to resist a slope slump, or construct something to prop up the hillside at an estimated $8 million to $16 million. The municipality then asked for an appraisal of the 34 properties.
Homeowners, meanwhile, are crossing their fingers and hoping for a fair buyout. Grigory Litvinov, 32, took possession of his Waterways bungalow just 33 days before it burned to the ground. His traumatized wife now lives in Edmonton, and Litvinov commutes to his engineering job with an oil company. But the couple would like to move to Montreal and start over.
He’s He’s waiting to find out how much the municipality would be willing to pay for his land, and whether his insurance company will be willing to pay the full cost of a replacement house on a different lot in town.
“The numbers are just crazy. We’re talking $100,000 plus or minus,” Litvinov said.
To avoid financial ruin, he may have to build a house in another part of town, then resell it.
Rejman, one of a few Waterways residents whose home was spared, said she hopes the now ubiquitous sight of construction will help people feel like Fort McMurray is returning to business as usual.
“I’m an optimist.”