Fort Mac’s Caustic Cycle III: Time to Shop

The following is another piece of mine that was just recently published at backofthebook.ca. Check out their website for tons of great Canadian centric writing! 

We’re now officially in the aftermath phase of the northern Alberta wildfire crisis. The fire is long gone, and everyone with a home to return to is back in its cozy confines. The money has been raised, the relief cheques have been sent out, the insurance claims are in, the liquor stores are operational, and a plethora of horrible cookie-cutter rock songs have emerged about the whole affair. One of them, “The Fight,” by Freedom’s Note, is played incessantly on the radio, and I have come to the conclusion that it has done more damage to me than the fire. It’s the audio equivalent of a TV movie you wouldn’t watch even if someone paid you.

But I digress. Business as usual has returned to oil country, and therein lies the problem. Making a quick buck is once again Job 1.

Take those radio stations. In addition to horrible rock anthems, they have been drenched in post-fire advertisements, all of which are a composite of the same collection of phrases:

“We at [NAME OF BUSINESS] would like to thank all of our first responders for the stand they took for our community. When the fire came and [DID SOMETHING HORRIBLE], we thought we’d never be able to recover, and now, we here at [NAME OF BUSINESS ABOUT TO EXPLOIT THE SITUATION] would like to show our thanks by offering staggering deals on [STUFF], [MORE STUFF], and anything else you might have lost during this tragic nightmare.”

The staggering deals are on everything you can imagine, from spark plugs, tarps, and musical instruments, to carpet cleaning services and beer. What they don’t mention is that those most in need, those who lost everything (including their homes) in the fire, aren’t even back in the city. And of those who who have returned, most came back to neighbourhoods that suffered only mild smoke damage. The whole event has now even been given a cute nickname, particularly popular with radio DJs: “The Evacucation.”

I doubt it’s seen as much of a vacation, though, by the 20% of the population who lost their homes. Maybe it’s just as well they aren’t back in Fort Mac yet, listening to the radio.

Fort McMurray car dealer with fire offer

What the ads really mean, of course, is: “We at [WE’RE NO DUMMIES, LTD.] would like to take this opportunity to make all the money we possibly can off everyone who just got a massive insurance cheque.” Which is certainly an effective business plan. A friend of mine who works in town, as opposed to on site, described the financial windfall that has landed on a lot of people: “Most large employers were insured for such events. The folks that work for these companies collected a full cheque during the emergency. Others were laid off, but they collected the maximum unemployment almost immediately. Which is $49,000 annually. Not only that but Canadian Red Cross immediately gave everyone $600. Then the government handed out $1250 for every person and child too, and finally, we all received another $300 from the Red Cross.”

In total, my friend received $2150 from donations. Not bad, given that he lives in Kelowna, commutes to Fort Mac, wasn’t evacuated, and lost nothing in the fire. He also told me about a buddy and his wife who have a house in the city. “The insurance adjusters came to their home to inspect it for damage, of which there was none. At most, some ash had settled on window ledges and doorknobs.” Nevertheless, the couple was given $20,000 for “clean up.”

His buddy was delighted with the whole thing. “A five-week vacation, full wage, $2150 from donations, $20,000 from insurance, and another $3000 from insurance for his spending during the evacuation. Not to mention not having to pay any bills and getting free hospitality wherever he went during the evacuation. He said he had never had so much money in his account before.”

My friend also mentioned that companies claiming to be restorative cleaning businesses have popped up everywhere in town. One came by his place of employment. Their equipment was brand new, paid for in full by the contracts the insurers were handing out, and included large air cleaners, high end vacuum cleaners, and mobile lifts, with a team of 30 temp workers standing by to run them, at $15 an hour each.

Well, that’s one way to lower unemployment in the province.

Now, this is only the experience of one person and his immediate circle of friends. I’m sure there are many people in town still experiencing hardship, and many whose homes require more than just a quick dusting. However, the 1600 homeowners and their families who are still living on a futon somewhere seem largely to have been forgotten. The fundraising events are over, the celebrities have come and gone, the songs have been written, the provincial back-patting is done, and the radio is telling everyone that the community has emerged stronger than ever and now it’s time to shop.

We assume the Red Cross and other aid agencies are still on the job, helping out those who have yet to return, and they are. But could we maybe delay the party until they’re back? And how about donating that unneeded insurance money to one of the local aid agencies in Fort Mac, the ones that didn’t get the lion’s share of attention and dollars at the time of the fire? And make sure it’s one that won’t just turn around and give the money back to you.

Fort McMurray is still missing whole boatloads of people, those hardest hit by the tragedy. This situation is not over, and this is the part of the crisis where the hardest work needs to be done — after the so-called conclusion. Those who didn’t enjoy an “Evacucation” are still evacuated. Let’s not leave them in the weeds while we dance to the beat of commerce and bad rock songs.

 

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