Thursday, November 24 2022

This is not a scene of disaster like those left by recent destructive floods or wildfires in British Columbia. But the effects of an explosion last August in Wheatley, Ont., also upended the lives of hundreds of people in that town.

Shortly after returning from reporting on flooding in British Columbia, I traveled to Wheatley and found a community in a state of suspended animation. My report on the mystery surrounding the gas explosion that leveled three buildings and turned downtown into a no-go zone, cut off from power and other utilities, came out this week.

[Read: Mysterious Gas Leak Unnerves Canadian Town]

Most of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened motel, at the crossroads of the city were destroyed. But after fleeing their homes at the end of August, members of only about half of the 100 displaced households were allowed to return for just one hour to collect clothes and other belongings. Almost all shops, small businesses and professional offices in the community remain closed.

As I wrote in my article, determining exactly what caused the explosion still eludes investigators. The most likely sources are two 19th-century natural gas wells buried beneath the city center. But the constant threat of another explosion has slowed the investigation, much to the chagrin of people who have been excluded from their homes for more than four months.

Late in the afternoon, I met Stéphanie Charbonneau at the fence that keeps her a few steps from “Big Red”, her family’s large brick house. Like many people in town, she described the family’s situation as almost surreal.

If a tornado swept through the neighborhood, Ms. Charbonneau said, “you can take the wreckage to help you figure out what happened to you.”

“We just don’t have that to process what we’ve been through,” she added.

Ms. Charbonneau did not, of course, want a tornado in her city. But the effect of the explosion was similar. Due to the potential danger, however, her insurance company still hasn’t been able to send workers into the house to flush her radiators and water pipes. Since some pipes recently froze on the farm that is her family’s temporary home, Ms. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated home.

Although there was no widespread destruction in Wheatley, I saw the same sense of community coming together to help people who were away from home that I had seen in British Columbia. Everyone recounted being helped with housing, clothing and even Christmas presents for the children by people who lived 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 at the start of 2020. It currently has 40 clients, including individuals and families. It also now offers to include household items and clothing. Donors have been so generous that the food bank has outgrown its space, which includes a refrigerated tractor-trailer.

For local businesses, the city’s state of uncertainty has added to the stress caused by the pandemic closures. Fortunately for the local economy, the fish processing plants and the shipyard which are the big local employers are located on the shore of Lake Erie, a short drive or a long walk from downtown.

There is local talk that if a permanent solution for the gas leak cannot be found, it might be necessary to move the town center to the port.

That, however, might just trade one problem for another. For some years a long stretch of the old provincial road which is the main street of Wheatley has been closed a few miles east of town. It stretches atop a cliff that has eroded, most likely due to climate change, to the point where officials fear the road could disappear into Lake Erie.

Although none of the people I met in Wheatley said they anticipated a gas explosion – or even knew that the town might have been built on top of three abandoned wells – the question of the past of the oil and gas industry that haunts the present is not unique to the city. This is a major problem in Alberta, where there are approximately 71,000 abandoned wells that need cleaning up, although the overwhelming majority are outside of urban areas.

Shopping is now very limited in Wheatley. A gas station, feed store and the provincial government liquor store are located outside the restricted area. But anyone looking for a liter of milk or a loaf of bread has to drive.

But until new Covid restrictions slammed across Ontario, the city had a gathering place. Hilary Hyatt was able to reestablish her cafe and restaurant, Lil Hil’s, in the clubhouse of a golf course on the eastern outskirts of town.

Ms. Hyatt told me she was grateful to be back in business. And she lives by the lake, away from the closed area. But, like everyone I met at 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’s long gone. But I believe our community will find a way to feel at home again.

Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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