Living in limbo

BURNT ISLANDS — With winter weather on the doorstep, questions about where displaced residents are going to live and how compensation packages for home losses will roll out still lack answers.

Wallace Kinslow was one of the residents who lost their home to post-tropical depression Fiona on Sept. 24, and he is struggling to get the answers he needs to understand what is going on and where he and his wife are going to go from here. Like many along the coast, Kinslow had no idea that Fiona it was going to hit the way it did.

“We’re so used to getting 100 to 110 (kilometers per hour wind) down there, a bit of spray coming onto the house, and we more or less give a deaf ear to it because it doesn’t usually hit land,” said Kinslow. “I found a big difference between 6:30 and something to 7:00 that morning because my house – I have a two-story house – it was moving. We were rocking more or less, our bed and that, and we knew this was not good.”

Kinslow said it was between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. that he knew this storm was unlike anything he had ever seen or experienced before.

“I fish. I’ve been in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve been in the great tails of the Grand Banks, in open trawlers and that, and I never ever witnessed what I witnessed that morning,” recalled Kinslow. “The sea, that wind, the storm surge that could come into a cove and pick a house up. It was crazy. It’s unreal.”

Kinslow said he looked over at his neighbours’ homes and watched the storm surge pick up their houses and toss them around like they were nothing.

“It rose (my house) up. It didn’t shift the foundation, but it rose it all up, and when I went back in the house, which was something crazy that I shouldn’t have done. I tried to save some things, close the door, but it was too late. Water was running in through my door, coming up through my floor. I was walking through it, splashing,” said Kinslow. “I was just after spending a little over $14,000 between the spring and June. I put a brand-new service on that house – 200-amp service. That cost me $8,000.”

Kinslow's granddaughter was living with him and he and his wife had completely renovated her room and added brand-new furnishings, all of which was lost to Fiona.

“Now I’m back to square one, as when I moved home. I got nothing. The house is there but it has to be torn down. We've got nothing. We’re out, like everybody else."

Kinslow and his wife are currently still in Burnt Islands, staying at their son’s house.

“We’re there now trying to cope. God love him, but it’s not the same. We’re all there in this one little house, me and the wife and a full family. I’m trying to get into an apartment. We can’t find anything.”

Kinslow said he is part of a social media group that is talking to each other and trying to help each other out as much as possible.

“The things that have happened to them have happened to us, everybody else is going through the same thing.”

Kinslow said the Red Cross asked him if he wanted to stay in a hotel, but he declined.

“I don’t want to stay in a hotel. Right now I’m with family, but I can only be there so long. I need to get into an apartment or a little two-bedroom house,” said Kinslow. “It’s very hard for me, and the rest of the people. If they can afford to pay to put me in a hotel room, why can’t they put me into an apartment building or somewhere for me and the wife to have a bit of comfort?”

Kinslow said the $10,000 grant received was some help, but it doesn’t go very far, especially when taking into consideration just how much he and his family have lost.

“What’s $10,000 right now? This is five weeks. We got help with our phone bills, light bills, down there. We got groceries and that. My wife and I had to get clothing to put on our backs. There's so many people going to the Red Cross. It’s unreal.”

Kinslow said the devastation wrought by Fiona has changed, not just the landscape of the community, but the people of Burnt Islands as well, who may never truly be the same after all is said and done.

“Eleven homes, eleven families, in a community with only 216 households. We're back to 205 households now, and that’s a big loss for a little community.”

Right now, Kinslow isn’t sure how to feel about the help coming from the provincial government.

“They came down and met us through the Town. The premier (Andrew Furey) was here, our member (MHA Andrew Parsons) was here, and I asked the question, ‘Are you here just for the politics, just to get yourself looked at and say you did come visit the communities and see what the people are going through? Are you using this for an election and that?’ I asked it in the town hall, and the response I got was, ‘No, we are here to help the people. We are going make sure the people are going to get this help and they aren’t going to be left out in the cold,’” said Kinslow. “I said, 'I’ve got no home, like many others, so what are you going to do for us?’ They said, ‘We will be by your sides, and we will help you.’ Five weeks are gone, and I haven’t heard anything about us or anything on the Southwest coast, what they are doing, if they’re going to come back. Come on guys, you’ve got families out here.”

Kinslow said that families need help now and the uncertainty is only adding more stress.

“I don’t think myself and the rest of us can take much more of this. We don’t know where to go,” said Kinslow. “We are all in a group (on social media). We’re all talking to each other about trying to get an apartment. There’s no apartments. There’s no housing here. If you’ve got to bring in some mobile trailers or something like that and set them up, bring them in. We’re willing to go anywhere.”

Kinslow said the longer they wait, the more likely people will be left out in the cold when winter hits.

“The winter is coming here. If people are still going to be sitting back and scratching their head, Christmas is coming, for the kids and all that. Come on guys, we are the ones who are hurting here. Big time," said Kinslow.

Having a place of their own, even just for winter, would help.

“What I need now is a home for me and my wife so we can sit back and look at each other and say, ‘You know what? Let’s take a breather. We’re going to start again,’” said Kinslow. “The winter is coming on top of us fast, and we need a place where we can see what we are going to do from here. I don’t want to move. I've got my grandkids here, like so many other people. I was asked by the Red Cross if I want to relocate, like to Stephenville or Corner Brook. Why would I want to go to Stephenville or Corner Brook? This is our home out here.”

Now that colder weather is fast approaching, MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo - La Poile) said there is currently a housing committee in place who are working on all kinds of temporary accommodations for people to avail of during the winter. Parsons has getting people into more suitable accommodations at the top of his list, but given that some people have pets and others have mobility issues, it's not a one size fits all solution and each family's needs must be taken into consideration once accommodations have been secured.

“Apartments, houses for sale, possibility of a hotel, some people may be content staying with family and getting compensated that way. That’s being worked on,” said Parsons. “There’s been conversations with pre-fabricated home construction companies. I’m talking about the possibility of conversion of units into rental units, so there’s a whole wide range of things being considered.”

Parsons said the compensation for covering those having to live in temporary accommodations is still being worked out as well, and that includes families who are taking in their displaced relatives for the long-term.

“Whether it’s staying with family, there’s a cost to that. Looking to rent an apartment? There’s a cost to that. You need to stay in a hotel for the next five months? There’s a cost to that. So we’re going to work through situations, try to help everybody find an agreeable situation that’s temporary. It's probably not perfect in many cases, but that’s not an uncommon thing at the best of times, people living in housing arrangements that aren’t the best or not what they want. Right now, it’s based on the fact that we’re dealing with a crisis and we just need to get people to the best place we can for their family’s needs, their personal needs, their mental health needs, their mobility needs.”

Parsons said he doesn’t have all the answers and cannot predict exactly how long it will be before he does have all the answers.

“The problem is that some of this is so new, and it hasn’t been contemplated on a wide scale in the history of the province. This is brand new. We have faced traumatic weather events in the past, but nothing of this magnitude, ever."

There are still a lot of moving parts that have to be figured out, and Parsons cautions that it will take time to ensure homeowners needs are met.

"This is going to go into 2023. The question is now, ‘where are we this time next year?,’” said Parsons. “The things that are top of mind for people are is the home safe or not, where am I going to go right now and how long does that last for, what is my financial compensation going to be so I can plan for the future?’”

Figuring out compensation for a permanent loss of residence not covered by insurance is a complex situation that will have to take a lot of factors into consideration. That package is not a one-size fits all solution either.

“It will not be based solely on assessment value, although that is one of the parameters that everyone will consider. Part of the latest developments in terms of homeowners being notified that their home is being declared a loss, there are adjusters on the way to do an assessment of people's homes, and part of that will also be contents. So we are using some principles of insurance adjusting to look at this because, in some cases, if you have a home that has been lost through fire and it was an insured loss, they have procedures that they have to calculate that. We’ll obviously take that into consideration here,” explained Parsons. “The other principle is generally we are looking at things from a replacement value point of view because the reality is, since most homes have been built, costs for construction have risen significantly and obviously we want to bring that into the equation.”

Parsons said some of the logistics involves homeowners who are still paying off a mortgage for a house that is no longer inhabitable.

“It would be up to a homeowner to pay off their mortgage, because that’s a reality still in place, and then, depending on what’s left, then that will help guide you into going forward. The reality is, in most situations, you should be hopefully in the same place as you were before which is, yes, you will have to go and deal with a new mortgage situation.”

Parsons said there is no way to implement a single set of parameters for everybody.

“The variations amongst each individual file are so great that it was hard, in my mind, to come up with one theory that works across the board for everybody. I think that, given the number of losses, which is great but also still manageable, we need to work with everybody to come up with the best individual situations.”

For those who don’t want to have their home torn down, even if they are told it is uninhabitable, Parsons said the option to stay may not be available to them. He expects an appeals process to be available to homeowners who want to contest a decision that rendered their home unlivable, but how that process will unfold has yet to be determined.

“If various officials have deemed your house unsafe, I think it is highly unlikely that a person should be staying,” said Parsons. “At the end of the day, I will be guided by what the law says, and I’ll be guided by what safety and security says and trying our best to work with individuals."

Assessments for homes that were not lost outright during the storm are still being conducted to determine whether or not damages are too severe for repairs. And conversations about a no-build flood plain area are also still in the early stages.

“I don’t know of anybody whose homes have not been technically written off have been told their homes must come right down. I don’t think that’s a decision that’s been made, but absolutely those are conversations that are happening. I’ve spoken to a couple of people that are extremely worried. Even if their house is structurally safe, they're worried about the new geography of where their house is in accordance to the coves, waves, rocks, their lawns, et cetera.”

Parsons said it will be an effort by multiple departments to make necessary evaluations and decisions.

“There are people within the Department of Environment and Climate Change that will be involved in working with the Town to see how it works. Nobody wants to see a house taken down that doesn’t have to be. Nobody wants that, but this comes down to safety,” explains Parsons. “Those are decisions that aren’t quite made yet. It comes down to consultations. It comes down to experts. It comes down to working with individuals and keeping certain principles in mind, which is safety and security.”

For families who decide to rebuild, it remains unknown whether land will be offered to them or if they will have to purchase their own plot. Parsons said it is something currently being worked on.

“That’s still something that’s being figured out in terms of what land is available, where it’s available, what’s the cost and how is it going to work. That's an issue in every municipality, but it’s absolutely a part of the equation,” said Parsons. “Right now, I’m consumed with currently displaced people and temporary accommodations. That’s where my head is right now.”

Finalizing compensation is the first crucial step in moving forward.

“We’ve got to get the compensation figured out. That’s going to inform a lot of these conversations because there’s also people talking about whether or not they should buy. It’s hard to know without knowing what your circumstance is going to be, which is currently being worked on.”

On Friday afternoon, Oct. 28, the province released information that outlines the newest support measures for displaced residents.

The temporary housing supports include up to $1,000 per month for those living with family and friends, up to $1,000 per month for rental accommodations, assistance in finding suitable rental units, and guidance for landlord / tenant lease agreements.

Health and safety reimbursements are also available through the Red Cross for purchases made during the first month following Fiona.

Details can be found on the provincial website: https://www.gov.nl.ca/releases/2022/jps/1028n03/.

Jaymie White, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wreckhouse Weekly News