Two weeks on, Lac-Mégantic evacuees still waiting to return home

LAC-MÉGANTIC, QUE. — The Canadian Press

Forensic teams and firefighters continue to work through the rubble in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Until last Sunday, Jacques Audet was spending nights on a cot in Lac-Mégantic’s high school gym.

Now he is staying in a trailer home right behind it.

Mr. Audet is one of 187 people still unable to return to their homes in Lac-Mégantic, nearly two weeks after a train carrying crude oil derailed and flattened the heart of the Quebec town.

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“The shower is good,” Mr. Audet, a 59-year-old saw mill worker, said with a smile as he stood outside his new sleeping quarters. “I don’t have that many needs. I’m used to living in a small place.”

Before the blast, Mr. Audet had a bachelor pad above a funeral parlour. His place did not appear damaged when he was allowed to return briefly last week to get a few clothing items and documents, he said. He is not sure when he will be able to make another trip back to collect photos of loved ones and other personal items.

In all, about 2,000 people were forced to leave their homes after the derailment.

Most were allowed to return last week, but the future is not so clear for those whose homes are destroyed, damaged or inside the security perimeter.

Officials say it could be days, months, or even years before those people can go home for good. Most of the evacuees have been staying with family and friends, but 20 have been moved to temporary accommodations in nearby motels, housing units or, like Mr. Audet, trailer homes.

“We tried to relocate these people to get them more privacy,” said Carl Boisvert, a spokesman for the Red Cross. “It’s clear that sleeping in a high school with a lot of other people can be difficult.”

About 40 buildings were destroyed in the derailment and many are behind a police security perimeter, closed off to the public with a curtain-lined fence. The area is still considered a crime scene and authorities continue to search for bodies. So far they have found 38 out of a possible 50.

There are also concerns about safety and soil quality after thousands of litres of oil leaked into the ground. One home exterior was coated in a thin, sludgy film of oil last week.

At its peak, hundreds of people were sleeping on lines of cots in the school’s two gymnasiums. A row of couches, where distraught residents comforted one another, was set up in front of student lockers in a hallway. Other rooms were packed with people lined up to meet with government officials or mental health specialists.

Many were fortunate enough to avoid those conditions.

Genevieve Latulipe rushed from her apartment with her 10-month-old daughter after the explosion and spent that night with friends nearby.

“It was pretty scary, but I think I was one of the lucky ones,” said Ms. Latulipe, who was allowed to return home last week. “I’m happy with the baby that I had another option.”

For others, moving back has not been easy.

Sinh Sisongkham lives with her husband and five children above the Thai restaurant they own just steps from the security perimeter.

Ms. Sisongkham said the restaurant was covered in oily grime when they returned last week and all the food had gone bad because of a power outage. Their apartment was hot, stuffy and reeked of oil when they arrived back, she said.

“I felt dizzy and threw up,” she said. “We had to open up all the windows and get the air flowing through.”

Sisongkham said a $1,000 Quebec government cheque, offered to evacuees as a first step in the recovery, will help.

The Quebec government has been handing out cheques as part of an initial $60-million emergency fund. In the long run, the federal government is expected to contribute to reconstruction. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway has also promised to help, while insurance companies have been on-site to process claims.

Still, Ms. Sisongkham said, things will not be as they were.

Getting the business going again could be tough, considering that the explosions obliterated much of the downtown. “In the past seven, eight months we were gaining momentum,” she said. “But now we have to restart.”

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