This is not a disaster site, like those left after the recent devastating floods or wildfires in British Columbia. But the aftermath of last August’s explosion in Whitley, Ontario, has also changed the lives of hundreds of people in that city.
Shortly after returning from a flood report in British Columbia, I headed to Wheatley and found the community in suspended animation. This week, I published a report on the mystery of a gas explosion that flattened three houses and turned the city center into a no-go zone, cut off from electricity and other communications.
[Read: Mysterious Gas Leak Unnerves Canadian Town]
Much of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings were destroyed, including a recently opened motel at the crossroads of the city. But after they left their homes at the end of August, only about half of the 100 displaced families were allowed to return for just one hour to collect clothes and other personal belongings. Nearly all local shops, small businesses and professional offices remain closed.
As I wrote in my article, determining what exactly caused the explosion still eludes investigators. The most likely sources are two 19th-century gas wells buried under the city center. But the constant threat of another explosion has slowed the investigation, to the dismay of people who have been homeless for more than four months.
Late one evening, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the fence that separates her just a few steps from Big Red, her family’s large brick home. Like many people in the city, she described the family situation as almost surreal.
According to Mrs. Charbonneau, if a tornado swept through the neighborhood, “you can collect the debris to understand what happened to you.”
“We just don’t have that to process what we’ve been through,” she added.
Mrs. Charbonneau certainly didn’t want her town to be hit by a tornado. But the effect of the explosion was similar. However, due to the potential danger, her insurance company is still unable to send workers to the house to drain water from radiators and water pipes. With the pipes frozen at the farmhouse, which is her family’s temporary home, recently, Mrs. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated home.
Although Wheatley did not see widespread destruction, I saw the same sense of community coming together to help people who were out of their homes that I had previously seen in British Columbia. Everyone had a story about how people who lived outside the closed zone or in neighboring settlements helped with housing, clothes, even children’s Christmas gifts.
The need is very real. A local food bank that had to relocate served five to seven families a week in early 2020. He currently has 40 clients including individuals and families. It is now also proposed to include household goods and clothing. The donors have been generous to the point that the food bank is outgrowing its space, which includes a refrigerated semi-trailer.
For local businesses, the state of uncertainty in the city has been exacerbated by the stress caused by the pandemic closure. Luckily for the local economy, the fish processing plants and shipyards that are major local employers are on the shores of Lake Erie, a short drive or long walk from downtown.
Locals say that if a permanent solution to the gas leak cannot be found, the city center may have to be moved towards the harbor.
This, however, may simply trade one problem for another. Over the past few years, a long section of the former provincial highway, which is Whitley’s main street, has been closed a few kilometers east of the city. It runs along the top of a cliff, which, most likely due to climate change, has been eroded to such an extent that authorities fear that the road may disappear into Lake Erie.
While none of the people I met in Wheatley said they expected a gas explosion or even knew the city might have been built on top of three abandoned wells, the problem of the oil and gas industry’s past haunting the present is not unique to the city. This is a major problem in Alberta, where about 71,000 abandoned wells need to be cleaned, although the vast majority are outside urban areas.
Shopping in Wheatley is now very limited. One gas station, a grocery store, and a provincial government liquor store are outside the restricted area. But whoever is looking for a liter of milk or a loaf of bread should get behind the wheel.
But until new Covid restrictions hit all of Ontario, there really was one gathering place in the city. Hilary Hyatt was able to restore her Lil Hil’s cafe and restaurant in a clubhouse on a golf course on the eastern edge of the city.
Miss Hyatt told me she was grateful to be back in business. And she lives by the lake, away from the closed zone. But like everyone I’ve met in Wheatley, she wants the uncertainty to end.
“I want my city back,” she told me. “I don’t think it will ever be the same – it hasn’t been for a long time. But I believe our community will find a way to feel at home again.”
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austin was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been writing about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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