Paul Rothwell’s plumbing shop in Fort McMurray’s Lower Townsite was one of hundreds of businesses and homes deluged after the spring thaw turned ice jams on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers into a giant bowl of expanding water.
“I’ve made millions in Fort McMurray and I’ve lost millions in Fort McMurray, but it’s home,” said Rothwell, whose 25-year plumbing business sat in three feet of water at the height of the flooding.
But it’s not the first time Rothwell has experienced the cruel hand of nature in the Alberta oil boomtown.
“Before it was the fires, millions gone. … But it’s not about the money, I can make it back again. It’s just another kick in the teeth.”
On April 28, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued evacuation orders for the area, and more than two weeks later many residents and business owners are still pumping out and surveying the damage, both in Fort McMurray and other flooded locales along the Athabasca River.
On May 8, when the Alberta government pledged $147 million in flood relief for the region, Premier Jason Kenney described the cause of the flood as “a one-in-100-year event in Fort McMurray triggered by an ice jam that was, at one point, 23 kilometres long.”
Rothwell, who now lives in Stratford, Ontario, returned on May 7 to see what was salvageable from his shop—which had been up for sale, but that’s now on hold—and to do what he could to help.
“I love Fort McMurray, it’s my friends there, it’s my town,” he said, adding that he was worried for his community. “How much more can you go through? The mental state here is precarious.”
Restrictions on businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic have only added to the economic pressures facing the Alberta energy hub, which has been suffering through the worst oil prices in a century and billions in capital exodus, including Teck’s decision to shelve its $20 billion Frontier mine in the region.
The flooding and the wreckage it leaves behind come less than four years after raging wildfires forced the evacuation of all 60,000 inhabitants and resulted in nearly 2,000 homes going up in smoke.
While most homes remain standing as the water recedes, it’s a race against time to clean and strip the interior structures before they’re rendered unliveable by contamination and the onset of mould.
“It consists of taking belongings out to the street that have been affected by the floodwaters, furniture and appliances, and then you might be taking the flooring and the drywall and insulation out,” is how Tammy Suitor describes a typical salvage job on a home.
Based out of a Samaritan’s Purse-run “disaster relief mobile unit”—a tractor-trailer rig loaded with gear—Suitor has brought nearly a dozen volunteers from Calgary to help organize locals to go house-by-house, managing 120 requests to date for decontamination assistance.
“Once we’ve vacuumed it all out, swept it all out, then we apply the shockwave of hospital grade disinfectant and it will take care of any of the bacteria, the mould, and leave it in a place where the homeowner can just rebuild.”
Invited by the municipality of Wood Buffalo to help out, this is the Christian charity’s second visit to Fort McMurray.
Following the 2016 wildfires, Samaritan’s Purse sent a similar contingent, which spent two months sifting through debris for family heirlooms and keepsakes, and removing contaminated refrigerators and freezers from homes that were spared from the flames but were without power for weeks.
“Some of the people affected by the fires have also been affected by the floods, so that’s been really hard,” said Suitor, who predicted the group’s current stay would extend into July.
“As for morale in the town itself, I mean, they’re a get-er-done kind of community.”
In addition to equipment and other gear, Samaritan’s Purse and its sister charity the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada have brought in chaplains experienced in demolition and cleanup as well as crisis management, who offer “spiritual and emotional help” in addition to elbow grease.
“Red Cross is here and Salvation Army is here and they’ve been feeding people, and so we’re here kind of doing the mud-out, gut-out, but we work together and try to accomplish the same thing,” said Suitor.
“And that’s ultimately helping the homeowners that are under-insured or not insured, that don’t have the means because they’ve been laid off or due to health or for whatever reason, to be able to do that work themselves.”
Rothwell spent the past weekend volunteering with Suitor and her crew, helping people clean up and try to save their properties.
“I started working with Samaritan’s Purse but then I had to start on my own shop yesterday. There’s extensive damage to the building, tools, and inventory,” he said.
“What are you going to do? Head down, horns up and you deal with it—with a lot of help from family and friends.”