11/10/2016 07:33 EST | Updated 11/10/2016 07:33 EST

Making Fort McMurray Home Again

Topher Seguin / Reuters
Residents look over the damage in the Timberlea neighbourhood as thousands of evacuees who fled a massive wildfire begin to trickle back to their homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin

Six months after the Alberta wildfires, signs of hope and renewal are everywhere in Fort McMurray, but sadly, so are fresh stories of loss, desperation, and family violence.

It's been half a year since almost 90,000 people were forced to flee their homes in the Wood Buffalo region, but now some of the stories I hear highlight the challenges associated with recovering from a disaster, and are terribly familiar.

These are stories about people trying hard to find their 'new normal' in the wake of Canada's largest disaster, but finding the process even more difficult than their terrifying evacuation last May. Thankfully, many groups and resources are already helping people cope with these current challenges.

I am hearing about families living in hotel rooms or rental properties as they wait for home repairs, rebuilds or the resolution of insurance claims. I am learning about people getting help for family violence, addiction, and marital breakdown. Job losses are increasing the turmoil. And now, some people are asking for help for the first time, having watched their savings dwindle to nothing.

People in Wood Buffalo are experiencing the pain and upheaval that can come months after a disaster, as people struggle to recover. At the Canadian Red Cross, we have seen this fallout before, and our experience has prepared us to help.

That's why Red Cross, along with other community and government partners, is already providing support, and will continue to help for months and even years, if necessary. That's why we also recognize that recovery is a unique and personal process. Certainly, the stories that I am hearing clearly illustrate this.

For instance, I was recently told about:

  • Several women with children who needed support after their husbands left town without warning because they couldn't find work or the energy to support young families.
  • An older man, who is financially stable after the fires, but could no longer face emotional challenges until he received counselling.
  • And in one case, young parents were helped with a plane ticket, so they could pick up their baby after months of separation. Wildfires destroyed their home when they were visiting relatives, so they left the child until it was safe to return.

Of course, there are many stories of resilience and incredible strength.

Everett Snow lost everything in the wildfires. But during the evacuation, he delivered donated supplies to other people in Boyle and Lac La Biche, and later to the food bank in Fort McMurray. His spirit was challenged, but not broken. His mother was a Red Cross volunteer, and Snow never imagined needing help himself. But generous donations from Canadians are now helping him get back on his feet.

Chad Bowie, a Fort McMurray teacher, and his colleagues risked their lives trying to extinguish embers on their school roof before they were evacuated. When they returned in August, their classroom materials, usually purchased by teachers, were smoke damaged and had to be discarded. But now, with help from the Alberta Teachers' Association and Red Cross, their materials are being replaced and school spirit is high.

At Red Cross, we are very grateful that we could help these people and thousands more because one million Canadians rallied from coast to coast to donate after the wildfires. Canadians gave $185 million, which was matched with $104 million from the Government of Canada and $30 million from the Government of Alberta.

To date, the Red Cross has already spent $178 million of this total, primarily to assist families and individuals, as well as small businesses and community groups. And we will continue to help people in need. In Fort McMurray, for example, caseworkers are still seeing dozens of people every day, providing funds for such basics as food, rent, school and work supplies. This is what Red Cross does when disaster strikes.

After making many trips to Fort McMurray, it is not the rows of charred houses or ashen forests that leave the most lasting impression with me. It is my encounters with people, their strength and human spirit that prevail. We know disaster recovery is extremely difficult, and in many ways, the hard work is just beginning for many people. But we also know that with support, people will get past this challenging period, and eventually discover that they are safely home again.

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