It’s not a sight as catastrophic as those left by devastating floods or recent wildfires in British Columbia. But the aftermath of an explosion last August in Wheatley, Ontario, similarly upended the lives of hundreds of people in that city.
Shortly after returning from reporting floods in British Columbia, I drove to Whitley and found a community in a state of stunted animation. My report surfaced this week about the mystery surrounding a gas explosion that destroyed three buildings and swept the city center into a restricted area, cut off from electricity and other utilities.
[Read: Mysterious Gas Leak Unnerves Canadian Town]
Most Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened hotel, were destroyed at the city’s crossroads. But after fleeing their homes in late August, members of about half of the 100 displaced families were only allowed to return for one hour to collect clothes and other personal belongings. Nearly all community stores, small businesses, and professional offices remain closed.
As I wrote in my article, the exact cause of the explosion is still far from the investigators. The most likely sources are two natural gas wells dating back to the 19th century buried below the city center. But the constant threat of another explosion slowed the investigation, frustrating people who had left their homes for more than four months.
Late one afternoon, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the railing just steps away from Big Red, her family’s brick home. Like many people in the city, she described the family’s situation as almost surreal.
Ms Charbonneau said that if a hurricane hits the neighborhood, “you can take the debris to help you process what happened to you.”
“We don’t have that to address what we’ve been through,” she added.
Mrs. Charbonneau, of course, would not have wished for a hurricane on her town. But the effect of the explosion was similar. However, due to the potential danger, her insurance company was unable to send workers home to drain the radiators and water pipes. Since some pipes have recently frozen on the farmhouse that is her family’s temporary home, Mrs. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated house.
While there was no widespread devastation in Wheatley, I saw the same feeling of community coming together to help people out of their homes that I had seen earlier in British Columbia. Each person had a story about receiving assistance with housing, clothing, and even Christmas gifts for children by people living outside the closed area or in nearby communities.
The need is very real. The local food bank, which had to relocate, served five to seven families a week in early 2020. It currently has 40 customers, including individuals and families. Now also offering to include household goods and apparel. The donors have been so generous that the food bank is encroaching upon its space, which includes a refrigerated semi-trailer.
For local businesses, the city’s limbo has added to the pressures from the pandemic shutdowns. Fortunately for the local economy, fish processing plants and shipyards that are the big local employers are located on the shore of Lake Erie, just a short drive or a long distance from downtown.
There is local talk that if a permanent solution to the gas leak is not found, it may be necessary to move the city center towards the port.
However, this may just be a crossover of another problem. Over the past few years, a long section of the former regional highway which is Main Wheatley Street a few kilometers east of the city, has been closed. It stretches on top of a cliff that has been eroded, likely due to climate change, to the point that officials fear the road may vanish into Lake Erie.
While none of the people I met in Whitley said they expected a gas explosion—or even knew that the city might have been built on top of three abandoned wells—the issue of the oil and gas industry’s past that haunts the present is not. Unique in the city. It’s a huge problem in Alberta, where there are about 71,000 abandoned wells that need cleaning, even though they are overwhelmingly located outside of urban areas.
Shopping is now very limited in Whitley. One gas station, feed store and regional government liquor store are located outside the restricted area. But anyone looking for a liter of milk or a loaf should get behind the wheel.
But until the new Covid restrictions came out across Ontario, the city had one place to gather. Hillary Hyatt has managed to recreate her cafe and restaurant, Lil’ Hills, in the clubhouse on a golf course on the eastern edge of town.
Ms. Hayat told me she was grateful to be back at work. It lives by the lake away from the enclosed area. But, like everyone she met at Whitley, she wants to end the uncertainty.
She said, “I want my town back.” “I don’t think it will ever be the same – it was long gone. But I do think our community will find a way to make it feel at home again.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austin was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has written reporting on Canada for the New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter @ianrausten.
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