March 23, 2017
By Janice Biehn
Since the devastating and destructive fire of May 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alta., Canadian Anglicans have poured out their generosity through PWRDF relief, raising more than $200,000 to help the more than 80,000 people who were displaced from their community.
“Life is slowly getting back to normal,” says Tara Munn, PWRDF Liaison and Secretary of the Fort McMurray Fire Relief Steering Committee, who is helping administer the funds. Residents were encouraged that the local state of emergency was finally lifted in late November, a sign that progress was being made. But two facts remain: many families are still living in temporary accommodations, and navigating insurance claims takes time. A lot of time.
“It’s very frustrating, that’s for sure,” says Munn, who is also a PWRDF Diocesan Representative. Whether your home was burnt to the ground or untouched by fire, everyone is feeling the stress. Munn describes one friend who moved her things – whatever hadn’t been looted during the fire – to a storage locker while her house was being cleaned. Then the storage locker was flooded. “The bottom line is we have to provide the community the emotional support it needs.”
Moving back is not without its complexities. In Abasand, for example, many of the buildings were so-called patio homes, what in some parts of the country are referred to as triplexes, but with three separate units and owners. This also means three separate insurance policies and three separate intents to return. The neighbourhood of Waterways has another complication because after the last round of flooding, a moratorium was placed on new construction in certain areas, which happens to be where homes were destroyed by fire. “So those people have a lot of red tape to go through to get to rebuild on their property.”
Munn notes that a couple of dozen homes have been rebuilt, inspected and reoccupied. But a key problem is that a large number of residents were uninsured or underinsured (the latter of which continues to grow as insurance runs out). “People cut their premiums to save money,” says Munn, “but then they don’t get as much insurance when they need it.”
Fort Mac is also facing the reality that many residents are not coming back. “The population base has decreased” says Munn. “Many social agencies who were stressed before due to downsizing of the local economic are now dealing with a staff decrease. Businesses are feeling it, too. It’s noticeably quieter.”
Munn is a parishioner at St. Thomas’s Anglican, where no one lost their primary residence, though some parishioners lost income properties (and therefore income and possibly tenants). At All Saints’ Anglican, located downtown and closer to Waterways and Beacon Hill, 12 families lost their homes. Not all have stayed to rebuild. The Diocese of Edmonton has assigned churches grants for discretionary spending to help anyone in need after the fire. “There’s a Syrian family here, for example, whose family co-sponsored them to come here in early spring, but that co-sponsoring family returned to the Middle East after the fire. The Edmonton Diocese is providing support. The kids are in school and they came snow tubing with our Youth Group.”
PWRDF donations are helping those who have chosen to stay to continue to rent while their homes or apartments are being repaired. Funds have helped local schools replace important teaching materials that were lost in the fire. “Schools also have a lot of government support,” says Munn. “The public school board has brought in a mental health therapist to a local high school working out of the guidance office and that person is fully booked.”
St. Thomas’ has offered several healing services, and All Saints held a Pet Blessing on October 2. Pet safety was a prevalent theme during the evacuation, says Munn. A lot of people were concerned about their pets’ well being and used social media to get their pets to safety. As well, pets are an important source of comfort to us during trying times.
A talk on “compassion fatigue” with Diane Strickland is also planned. Social service providers and clergy experience a sort of “vicarious trauma” or burnout from helping in these situations, says Munn. “In Fort McMurray it’s further complicated because the service providers also experienced the primary trauma. So Diane will address primary PTS/PTSD of residents, and also compassion fatigue of social service/helping professions.” Munn adds that experts have advised residents that at the one-year mark, it’s common to experience a dip in mood. “People can look at that anniversary and suddenly see that they’re not any further ahead than they were. So we’re bracing for possibilities of emotional setback.”
PWRDF funds also helped cover some of the costs the March 18 conference at Keyano Collage, “Coming Through Fire: Rebuilding, Reconciling, Rethinking” featuring noted author, playwright and journalist, Drew Hayden Taylor. The conference sessions explored aspects of survivorship, but also broader ideas such as the legacy of reconciliation, illness and recovery and dealing with trauma.