McMurray Musings - Not Your Usual Suspect… Arianna Johnson: One Story Among Thousands…
When one looks at photos of the devastation that surrounds it, it is hard to believe that Arianna Johnson’s home in Abasand remains standing. Johnson, Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, knows that the fact it survived the fire does not mean it is habitable.
“My home is still standing but it will have to be demolished as it has been deemed structurally unsound,” says Johnson of her home, just one of many structures that may have survived the fire but will still require demolition.
Johnson, who owned a home in the south end of Abasand, acknowledges there are some unique challenges when it comes to rebuilding a property that serves as home for hundreds of people.
“There are 214 townhouses and over 200 owners. There are so many voices and engagement of owners is difficult in the best of times; during the worst of times engagement is strife with anger and pain. The board is often the brunt of people’s anger and hurt and has to deal with people carefully while still being owners themselves and having to deal with their own personal losses,” Johnson says of the situation facing many condominium owners and boards in the community who suffered the collective total loss of their properties.
Johnson had the opportunity to salvage some of her personal goods from her still standing home, but even this created unique challenges with her insurance provider, which had a differing viewpoint on whether or not some items could be salvaged or should be considered a loss.
”I was given an adjuster who attended my house and he told me they could clean everything, even my soft goods. I questioned him on this and he told me my windows were closed and there was no ash in my home, which I knew to be untrue. I pushed and pushed and finally demanded an independent inspector. The inspector came within two days; however he failed to finish the report for over four weeks. So here I was renting a home, sleeping on the floor on an rv mattress with no furniture and barely any clothing, working 16 hour days to get the food bank ready and open, and fighting every day to get this inspection. I finally gave up and told them I was buying a bed and sending them the receipt, and they were paying me for it. I told them that if they thought my mattresses could be cleaned they could clean them and sleep on them for a year and then I would accept them back and reimburse the insurance company for the new ones. I did not get a response from them on that one,” says Johnson of just one frustrating and stressful interaction with her insurance provider.
After seven long weeks of waiting, the inspector’s report was finally received and suddenly her insurance provider was significantly more cooperative, agreeing to pay out her contents insurance to the maximum limit. Once Johnson was finally able to view the report, she learned it had revealed ash and toxins in her home, despite the insurance provider’s initial insistence this was not the case.
Despite the challenges she has encountered, she remains optimistic on the rebuilding of her home and the condominium complex, although she recognizes it may take some time. “The reality is it will be one to two years. I know my condo board is working hard for the one year mark but since demolition hasn’t started yet, I truly believe there is no way we will get foundations in before snow fall this year,” she says of the timeline that will find her back in her home.
Johnson, along with her team at the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, dealt with their own personal losses while also dealing with the losses incurred at the Food Bank and the monumental task of getting it operational again for a community desperately in need of its services. Despite her personal and professional challenges, Johnson continues to move forward, her courage perhaps forged by what she encountered when she arrived back in Fort McMurray after the fire: “I expected things to be in a much worse state when we re-entered than they were,” she says. “I was truly braced for total destruction of the city and for it to look like a waste land and it didn’t - Mother Nature greeted us with lush greens and beautiful days,” says Johnson. Maybe it is in the perseverance of nature despite the challenges of the fire that Johnson finds her inspiration and strength as she continues to look ahead to the day she will return to south Abasand, and her new home.