Wheatley residents and businesses remain in limbo one year following town centre explosion

Heidi Allison says her retirement plans are on hold because of the uncertainty the explosion has created in her life. (Jacob Barker/CBC - image credit)
Heidi Allison says her retirement plans are on hold because of the uncertainty the explosion has created in her life. (Jacob Barker/CBC - image credit)

The fate of Wheatley's town centre remains unknown, and some residents and businesses continue to be on the outside looking in a full year after an explosion tore apart its downtown core.

The explosion, which is suspected to have been caused by a gas leaking from abandoned wells, took place the evening of August 26, 2021. It destroyed two buildings, injured 20, and left nearly 100 households and dozens of businesses displaced.

Earlier this year, the municipality of Chatham-Kent shrunk the evacuation zone around the blast but work continues to plug gas wells discovered in the area of the explosion. However, by its most recent count, 37 households remain displaced, 21 businesses are still closed and the investigation into the cause of the blast has never been concluded.

The Municipality of Chatham-Kent said right now there is no time line for the town centre to reopen.

"Building officials will confer with businesses in the affected area once work has been completed on capping wells and related site work," said the municipality through an email.

This leaves many questioning their future in and around the town centre.

We checked in with community members and business owners most affected by the blast to see how they are coping one year on.

Barry Broadbent - Owner of the Car Barn Restaurant

A year ago Barry Broadbent negotiated with fire crews to try and save his stock of frozen chicken inside his restaurant, Car Barn, just metres away from the blast site. Today he is left uncertain about the future of his business inside the town centre.

"I think it's going to be really tough to convince the consumer or the residents or the business people in Wheatley ... that it's safe to come back," he told the CBC.

"It happened years ago and it's now happened again so obviously, we're dealing with something that isn't 100 per cent guaranteed."

Broadbent said the 15 staff members that worked at his restaurant have moved on and if they were able to reopen, there are many unknowns including inflation and other costs that have risen since he was forced to close. He also doesn't know the extent of the structural damage to his building.

"There's just so many things that could adversely affect you," he said.

He has been getting by running a catering business out of a trailer, as well as business interruption insurance policy but that expires after a year which is now up.

"After this Friday, I'm on my own, I'm still not in my building so all the expenses are going to have to be incurred by myself," he said.

Heidi Allison - Displaced Resident

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC

Heidi Allison, 62, was planning to retire soon but right now those plans are on hold.

"It has been horrible, absolutely horrible," Allison said. "Your independence is gone."

Today she is living with her mother's friend in Leamington. She had expected more coverage from her insurance company but they have only covered a fraction of her costs.

Initially she was planning to return to her apartment in Wheatley but a couple of months ago she said she was told she wouldn't be able to even with her building sitting outside the evacuation zone. The comparable places she has found to rent, she said, are triple what she had been paying.

"I just feel my entire world has been turned upside down and I have no control of it."

Becky and Bugsy Lamb - Home Owners

The Lambs have been making new friends living in a Leamington Air BnB near Point Pelee National Park but they are eager to get back to their friends and neighbours.

"It hurts," Becky said as she stands in her living room with some mould still covering the walls and ceiling.

"It'll be home again one day."

CBC first visited the Lambs in April as residents some residents who were displaced were allowed to again access their properties. At the time, more than 61 centimetres of sewage and water was being pumped out of their basement.

Months later, the sewage may be gone but progress on the house has been slow. They said that no work has been done on the house in the last three months as they wait for the insurance company to get a second quote for extensive work that needs to be done to make the house livable again.

"That way nobody's being gouged but in the meantime we wait," Becky said.

"We wait and we wait," Bugsy added.

Paul De Goey - Hotel Owner

Jacob Barker/CBC
Jacob Barker/CBC

The Wheatley hotel had only been open about a month when the explosion happened. Paul De Goey had put about a million dollars into the idea and was excited about the new start. That start remains on hold one year later.

"Where does the municipality see Wheatley?" De Goey said. "Where are we going to be in six months from now, like, what's the plan?"

He said he expects there to be some extensive damage to the hotel which is right next door to where The Pogue once stood but he can't be certain where things lie as insurance adjusters have never been able to get in to make an assessment.

"If they're going to be rebuilding all the existing buildings. Is it going to be insurable? Is it going to be deemed safe tomorrow but not today?" he asked.

When asked what he thought of the idea of moving the town centre to another area — he said he does question the safety and the viability of the businesses that do remain.

"I'm in the hotel business. Would you want to stay at a hotel in Wheatley that's exploded? That's the million-dollar question."