Rebuilding Our Homes
Taking a drive through neighbourhoods wiped out by May’s wildfire, the swaths of emptiness are slowly coming to life with the sights and sounds of homes being rebuilt.
Pockets of activity are increasing with cement trucks parked in front of cleared and prepped lots as foundations are poured; roof trusses waiting to be mounted; the sounds of hammers as homes are framed and the put-chhh as the air pressure escapes nail guns as roofers shingle.
As of March 8, 534 development permits had been issued as the rebuild in Fort McMurray has started making some notable headway.
“We need to keep in mind this is by structure,” points out Jeanette Bancarz, chair of the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee, “so, with those 534, there are close to 700 actual dwelling units that have been approved for development with many more to come this year.
“This is truly the year of the rebuild and I am continuously amazed by the strength, resolve and resilience of the hundreds of residents that are currently rebuilding.”
Steve Menard is one of those residents, but rather than rely on a builder, he put the rebuild of his home into his own two hands – literally.
And not only has it been a tremendous learning curve as he has never built a home before, he admits it’s the best therapy he could have asked for.
“This has been 100 per cent therapeutic,” he chuckles.
He has been helped along the way by his stepson, Doug Wheeler, and even at times, his 14-year-old grandson, Sean Wheeler, has been around swinging a hammer.
When Menard returned to what was left of his Abasand home, he recalls there was so much hurt and even he was “really hurting.”
He took a deep breath, resolving to rebuild, thinking to himself “I have the ability to rebuild, I’ve been here for 40 years. So let’s get this thing built. Let’s come out of the ashes.”
He broke ground in October 2016 and started banging nails in the following month, and has been there pretty much every day since, even in those frigid minus 30 and colder days.
He recalls the hard work of those early days when it was up and down ladders between floors or coming in from outside, carrying lumber to frame the inside or whatever building material was needed.
“I look at the 2x4s and the 2x6s, and I say that came on a truck outside when it was 32 below plus, and it had to come off the truck and get into here, and get on the walls. It had to be measured; it had to be cut; it had to be nailed. And when I look around it’s kind of overwhelming. Count how many there are in here and how many nails; tens of thousands of nails I used. Every board, every wire. There were nights I went to sleep and my arms were still doing this,” he grins, moving his arms side to side over his head.
“I’ve learned a little bit about all the trades. I definitely know how to do it right now because we followed the book, the Alberta Building Codes. I had a lot of advice from the fine folks at the city. The permitting office; I should make a shout out to those folks. The girls up there have been just phenomenal. Again, you talk about rebuilding and not knowing the answers; there are people up there that will help you.
“They kind of giggled at me when I first walked in the office and said I want to build my own house, but when they realized I was serious, they really helped me out.”
He boasts he has lost some 42 pounds and is likely in the best shape he’s ever been in.
Despite the cold, the frustration and emotions that come into play, “Not a moment goes by where I don’t say this was a great move.”
It’s that optimism that he reassures others that “There are so many unanswered questions today. … Just keep your chins up and stay focused on what it is you want, and you can achieve it, and tomorrow will definitely be better than today.”
While seeing people moving into their new homes has served as a beacon of hope for others awaiting rebuild, it has also been a time of some hard lessons.
For homeowners without insurance, the question of rebuild has them in limbo.
“One of the learnings that has taken place as we move through recovery together is that there was a considerable amount of our affected residents that were uninsured or underinsured,” Bancarz, admits. “We are very fortunate to have local supports and options for our residents who may be challenged in rebuilding their home.”
Those uninsured or underinsured looking to rebuild are encouraged to speak with the Canadian Red Cross or NSUUR (NGO’s Supporting Uninsured, Underinsured Recovery). NSUUR gifts in-kind materials to those that require additional resources in the rebuild, and is currently taking applications.
As residents, especially those in the hardest hit areas with older homes, began dealing with their insurance companies, some mortgage holders began calling in outstanding mortgages, demanding payment from the insurance coverage. As a result, some of those homeowners aren’t qualifying for new mortgages given the increased value of their rebuilt homes.
“We understand this is a significant challenge for many of our most affected residents and are looking for ways we can support our community in this respect,” said Bancarz. However, she adds, the WBRC and Recovery Task Force does not have direct involvement in the relationship that exists between property owners, financial institutions and insurance providers.
“Regardless of the circumstances, we will always advocate for our neighbours in recovery and rebuilding, and will work with our partners and other organizations to reduce barriers and to find solutions to any issues they may be facing.”
Meanwhile, those with difficulties navigating the insurance process, or in dispute with their insurance companies, have been turning to the Insurance Bureau of Canada - a type of mediator if you will.
When evac happened, IBC invoked its Emergency Response Plan, working with government officials, stakeholders and emergency management staff to help out where it could. That included setting up at evacuation centres, answering insurance questions, and connecting displaced residents with their insurance provider.
That work has continued months after re-entry as issues between homeowners and insurance companies continue during the rebuild.
“We have a Consumer Information Centre that has spoken with thousands of residents helping answer their insurance questions,” says Rob de Pruis, director of consumer and industry relations, Western and Pacific region. He acts as a liaison between IBC’s member companies, consumers and stakeholders to answer questions and help navigate through the concerns that impact everyone involved.
“The people in this community are much like consumers across the country that may not fully understand the details of their insurance policy,” acknowledged de Pruis.
“We have been helping residents by answering questions on the claims process, navigating them through the wording of the policy and discussing expectations. Many residents we speak to have questions about what coverage they should be considering, to ensure they are better protected in the future.”
The complexity of the recovery for the community is what Bancarz points to as a major challenge for the WBRC.
“Every recommendation, program or initiative that is put forward or discussed can involve making a decision that moves us forward in some ways, but is never perfect or solves the issue for every resident or situation,” she explains.
“Everyone has unique circumstances in recovery so one of the challenges is delivering solutions to complex issues in a way that will help the greatest number of our neighbours that need our help the most.”
Considering the five pillars of WBRC’s Campaign Plan: People, Environment, Economy, Rebuild, and Mitigate, many concurrent initiatives are taking place at any given time and the community is moving forward through recovery on many different fronts.
It is this mass coordination of the recovery she highlights as overall the biggest success.
“Many other initiatives are still in the planning stages and will be rolled out in a timely and deliberate fashion. We are able to move forward proactively to position our community for continued success. Of note, we believe the rebuild, given the enormity and timing of the disaster, is ahead of schedule. We have many residents already living in their new homes and by the end of 2017, we will see hundreds of houses completed and more and more families continuing to move in to their new homes. Rebuild is only one aspect of long-term recovery, but it is one that matters tremendously and I thank everyone that has worked tirelessly to set up our residents for success.”
Ensuring the local construction industry is part of the rebuild has been a priority for the Fort McMurray Construction Association (FMCA).
“We have pushed for this with the municipality, but realize that the final decision comes from the individual homeowner and the insurance company,” said Keith Plowman, FMCA vice-president.
FMCA staff has also been in contact with the IBC advocating local contractors.
However, while a fair amount of the single family rebuilds are being done locally, Plowman notes that multi-family rebuilds are exclusively out of town companies, as per condo board recommendations put to the ownership for approval.
Many local contractors are either building homes or involved as subcontractors. The number of rebuilds being forecast for this year by the municipality is actually comparable to builds that have happened in other years in Fort McMurray.
“I believe we have the capacity,” said Plowman, however, he recognizes there are other companies that move in when they smell “blood in the water.”
According to Service Alberta, it has opened some 63 investigations into builders and contractors in Fort McMurray related to the rebuild and recovery of the community. Another 34 are expected to be opened shortly.
A predominant complaint is a contractor asking for a deposit.
Consumers incorrectly believe the contractor has the right to ask for these deposits to pay for supplies.
If contractors don’t have a prepaid contracting license with Service Alberta, they are not allowed to accept any money, not for labour and not for supplies, until the entire job is complete.
“We know recovery will take years not months, and our government is going to be there every step of the way to help Fort McMurray residents rebuild their homes and their lives,” says Service Alberta Minister, Stephanie McLean.
“That means protecting consumers from unscrupulous contractors looking to take advantage of those who lost everything in the fire. We have an investigator on the ground so no one gets scammed during the rebuild. If you have an incident to report, call our consumer protection line at 1-877-427-4088. We will look into it and investigate.”
Plowman allows that the local associations were unprepared for this disaster.
“Let’s be honest, everyone was. I think if we could take one lesson, it would be to advocate ahead of time to ensure local content. A lot of the initial contracts were given to out of town companies while local companies were forced to evacuate and not informed of opportunities.”
The FMCA, Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, NAABA and Community Futures have done a great job contacting and advocating on behalf of local companies, says Plowman, as local associations have seen a renewed coming together and co-operation.
“If only there was a way to get some teeth to some of the ideas and programs suggested. The Alberta Government, and now the insurance companies and consumers, have all the decision-making ability and, sometimes, had their own ideas of what should happen. I would like to see the government talk to local associations in future disaster scenarios. Maybe that’s something we should push for,” said Plowman.
It has been repeatedly said over the past few months that the wildfire was the largest insured event in Canada’s history. With insurance payouts in the neighbourhood of $3.7-billion - which is about 49,000 claims - insurers, service providers, emergency responders and everyone related to this event were stretched to their capacity. Many claims have been successfully resolved, however, de Pruis notes there are still many that remain open. The insurance companies are committed to working with their policyholders to honour the terms of the policy and ensure their claims are resolved.
He recognizes that not every claim will be handled to the policyholder’s satisfaction. Misunderstandings occur. To that end, IBC has provided several presentations outlining the dispute resolution options available to residents.
“Open communication is necessary and we encourage residents who are having challenges to keep these channels open and discuss them with their insurance representative,” stressed de Pruis.
One possible impact to insurance coverage is the new National Energy Building Code adopted by Alberta for housing and small buildings. It came into effect last November and some insurance policies may fall short when building to meet those new energy efficiency requirements.
An insurance policy is not a one size fits all, says de Pruis.
“Since each insurance policy is unique and specific to that individual, it is important to understand the product that you have purchased. Some policies may provide coverage for the changes that were adopted while some policies may not.”
Residents re-building are encouraged to review their policy with their insurance representative to ensure they make an informed, educated decision on what product is right for them, he adds.
As the rebuild ramps up, IBC continues to attend events such as the recent YMM Home Show, where it presented information to consumers about insurance and dispute resolution options, for those that are having challenges navigating their insurance claim. IBC attends the local Here for You public information sessions connecting with residents and has continued its partnership with Wood Buffalo Economic Development setting up one-on-one meetings answering insurance questions for business owners and consumers.
“IBC will be available, like the insurance industry, until the last home is rebuilt in the municipality,” stated de Pruis.
Though IBC has often been in the role of teacher, even scheduling an Alberta Consumer Outreach Tour this summer, to promote insurance literacy and discussing emergency preparedness for extreme weather, it has also learned a few lessons.
“The biggest lesson learned, we feel, is to have IBC involved in the early stages of the emergency. Our role was to act as the window between the emergency officials, government and stakeholders to the insurance industry and vice versa. We were able to help coordinate a fridge/freezer (white goods) removal and disposal program which picked up almost 12,000 units. We helped insurance personnel get early access, to set up and prepare for returning residents. IBC also helped co-ordinate a mass debris removal program using a local contractor, supporting the struggling economy.”
Going forward, IBC is conducting a ‘post mortem,’ reviewing its overall response to find areas where it can improve.
“We held focus groups with residents, completed an external stakeholder review and currently undergoing an internal review to become even more prepared when another event happens in the future.
“Unfortunately, this is probably not the last major event to occur in this province and IBC, as well as our members, are taking steps to improve our response, based on the learnings from this wildfire.”
IBC: 1-844-227-5422, or e-mail, email@example.com
Canadian Red Cross: 1-888-553-5505
Photo: One day Steve was cutting a piece of wood outside when a piece flew off, hitting him in the cheek before landing on the ground. Noticing it looked like a heart, he put it in his pocket where it stayed all winter. On one particular difficult day when he was questioning himself, he stood up from his chair in from of the fire when something dug hard into his leg. He fished the offending item out of his pocket and saw that it was the heart. He took solace in the sight, as it reminded him you can do anything when you put your heart into it. The heart now rests dead centre in the floor of the lower level.