07/11/2013 07:24 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Johnsons Landing Landslide Victims Remember Deadly 'Act Of God'


VANCOUVER - Jillian Madill can still remember moving into her dream home almost three decades ago — a 100-year old log cabin on 17-acres of property in Johnsons Landing, B.C.

She said it was "the most gorgeous log house that you've ever seen," and she and her husband John could not have been happier.

But Madill and her husband will never live there again. Their home was destroyed by an avalanche of mud and debris that buried their tiny community in southeast B.C. one year ago Friday.

Four of the community's 35 residents lost their lives, and four other houses were wiped out.

"To just lose it in a blink of an eye like that. It's taken us a while to come to terms," said Madill.

The landslide tore through Johnsons Landing mid-morning, careening down the mountainside before spilling into Kootenay Lake.

Resident Richard Ortega was standing outside the community retreat centre he co-founded, chatting with a neighbour when the ground started to shake.

"There was this giant rumble, and we all looked up," he said. "It sounded like a freight train coming down, except you could hear trees snapping and boulders rumbling."

"It was less than 60 seconds for the entire event, and when it stopped, the world was completely still. There wasn't a bird chirping or a bee buzzing. Nothing. Everybody was in shock," he said.

A report on the disaster in May said the landslide was caused by heavy rain and a late-spring snowmelt that set off what was the largest slide to hit the region in the last 12,000 years.

For residents like Madill — whose homes were destroyed or condemned — the year has been a nightmare. Her family did not receive "a dime" from their insurance company, and the provincial government's disaster financial assistance program provided very little compensation.

The program is "intended as a hand-up, but it doesn't lift you up very far because things cost a lot," she said. "At the end of May, (we) got the word from the government that there would be no further money."

Because the slide was considered an "act of God," compensation for residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed was limited.

Fortunately, a friend of the couple let them buy a house in nearby Howser — the same house they have been living in since they lost theirs — at a manageable price.

Johnsons Landing "was such a beautiful place. And parts of it still are beautiful," she added. "But it's a difficult place to be. This gash that goes down the centre of the community, dividing north from south, is huge, and there are so few people there now. So many of us have had to leave."

But Ortega said that the community as a whole is almost back to normal.

"Gardens are growing, things are being built, little kids are here. Life as usual," he said. "To walk around here, you'd think nothing happened."

Although Madill has managed to replace her home, she added that she'll miss the people of Johnsons Landing the most.

"It's such a strong sense of community down there, and we all know each other so well, and we've been through hell together, and we still are in touch and we talk to each other, but it's not the same as living there," she said. "It's really hard to replace that."

But Madill said she is optimistic about the future.

"I think we'll be happy here," she said. "I think a lot of it is your attitude. We can mourn forever for Johnsons Landing or we could get on with it, and we just have to get on with it."

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