FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - As residents of Fort McMurray continued to assess their flood-damaged homes and businesses and began the difficult task of cleaning them this weekend, they also marked the anniversary of the start of an evacuation that emptied the northern Alberta city four years ago.
“It was evident on May 3, 2016 and it is evident today: we are a region of resilience,” Mayor Don Scott said in a news release from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on Sunday.
Many of the evacuation orders that began last weekend due to the spring ice breakup on nearby rivers were lifted Friday. The flooding affected low-lying areas of Fort McMurray including its downtown, and close to 13,000 people had to leave their homes.
When Norm Sutton was allowed to return to his home in Fort McMurray, he could see that his wife’s car had been totally submerged and floodwater had completely filled his finished basement, soaking everything right up to the ceiling.
The water is gone now, but it’s left a deep layer of mud in the basement and has soaked the drywall. The family issued a plea on social media for volunteers to come on Sunday to form a chain to pass debris up the stairs to a dumpster, but they warned the work will be wet and that anyone who comes to help should bring rubber boots.
“The furniture, the library, I’ve got over a thousand books downstairs. Everything was destroyed. My wife’s sewing room, her sewing machines, the fabric collection, the beds, my record collection, the stereo, everything is totally destroyed,” Sutton said in a phone interview Saturday.
“But we were luckier than quite a few of my neighbours in that it did not reach the main floor of the house.”
When Fort McMurray residents returned home following a wildfire that forced the entire city to flee in 2016, they hoped that their homes had escaped the flames and were still standing.
This time, the homes are still there, but some aren’t inhabitable because of the water damage, at least in the immediate future.
The Canadian Red Cross has been handing out cleanup kits that contain latex and work gloves, sponges, garbage bags, mops and scrub brushes. A boil-water advisory for the city remains in effect, so oil company CNOOC International supplied a tanker truck that pumped out potable water to people who brought jugs on Saturday.
A supermarket downtown, forced to close but not damaged, gave away free produce to the food bank, which distributed the items from the back of a semi-trailer on Saturday.
“The recent river breakup flood has reminded me of the incredible generosity of our residents. That generosity was on display on that evacuation day four years ago, where neighbour helped neighbour, and it continues today,” Scott said.
Historic fires started in the bush
The fire in northern Alberta ignited deep in the bush on May 1, 2016, and exploded into a ferocious blaze that forced the evacuation of the entire city two days later.
More than 80,000 people fled as towering flames licked at their homes and crackled along the only highway out of the city. Flames consumed nearly 2,600 dwelling units, which were mostly residential.
Chief administrative officer Jamie Doyle said the fire evacuation was one of the most challenging days the region and the municipality has ever faced. But he also said that between COVID-19 and the flooding, staff have also been very busy in the emergency operations centre this year.
“Like May 3 four years ago, these emergency responses can be incredibly stressful on our staff, particularly if they have been directly impacted as a resident,” Doyle said in the municipality’s news release.
“If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to express your thanks to a member of municipal staff or to a first responder.”
Donations collected by Red Cross
The municipality said Saturday that electricity and natural gas service has not been restored to the flood-affected areas yet, but crews were working to restore it as quickly as possible. A boil-water advisory for the city and surrounding region also remained in effect.
It said that Canadians wishing to make a donation are encouraged to contribute to the Fort McMurray & Area Floods Fund online at www.redcross.ca.
Superstore, a supermarket downtown that was forced to close — but escaped the flooding — was able to help lift the spirits of returning evacuees on Saturday by donating free food, which was distributed by the Wood Buffalo Food Bank Association.
Dan Edwards, the food bank’s executive director, noted that despite the strain that many people are facing, the ones who stood in line for the free produce took the time to ask how he and the volunteers were doing.
“Literally every single person I talk to, they say, thank you. I’ve had people asking me what I need as I’m walking down the lineup,” Edwards said, noting a lot of the people won’t be covered by insurance.
“We’re only just beginning this phase, and it’s going to be a while before things are whole again.”
The municipality announced on the weekend that emergency housing provided through the Red Cross was being extended until May 10 for people whose homes aren’t safe to live in.
On Friday, Environment Minister Jason Nixon said a 44-kilometre-long icy mass on the Peace River could mean another 6,000 people in the region might need support from the province.
About 750 people have left their homes on the Little Red River Cree Nation, which declared a state of local emergency last Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2020.