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PAB, province begin Phase 1 of response

It has been a month since post-tropical depression Fiona struck Port aux Basques, but Mayor Brian Button says a lot of work still remains.

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter – with René J. Roy and Rosalyn Roy

PORT AUX BASQUES — It has been a month since Fiona made landfall on the Southwest coast, but the work to rebuild is far from over. The town has passed damage reports to the province, and last Friday, Oct 21, residents of the more severely damaged homes began receiving phone calls to report to the Town Hall, where they received letters from the province about the status of their home, next steps to be done, and application forms.

This began the first phase of the response for residents whose homes suffered the most severe damage, and Mayor Brian Button shared that this portion of the recovery effort will likely roll out over a couple of phases. Phase 2 has yet to be finalized.

A lot of work remains, including crunching numbers for rebuild and repair, before Port aux Basques and the rest of the communities along the Southwest coast can rebuild, repair and truly begin the healing process.

Throughout it all the perseverance and bravery of those residing on the Southwest Coast have been well noted. On most evenings Mayor Button does a live update on his Facebook page to deliver information to residents; however, as with any disaster, rumours and misinformation still run rampant.

One such rumour is that displaced residents will only get the town assessment of their home, will not be provided with land to rebuild, and will have to buy land themselves. Mayor Button said that is far from accurate.

“I don’t know where the information would be offered and I don’t know who would be offering the information. I know that information has not been offered from myself.We don’t have that information and – for starters – I don’t know how that information can be given to somebody,” said Button. “What you hear from me or a government official, this will be the most accurate information you will get.”

Button said he has no knowledge of any of such information and that it is still far too early in the process for such speculation.

“What’s being worked out here now – and it’s not even done – that’s from a provincial government side – is trying to prepare on how the assessments will be done on properties. It will be done on an individual basis. We are trying to provide lands, see which lands we would have available, and all of that type of stuff,” said Button. “That’s a loaded type of information that someone would provide when – number one, it’s not accurate, and number two, it’s not even remotely close to being accurate, and number three, I don’t want anybody to have that type of information unless it’s information that is correct.”

Button said the town is trying to answer questions the best they can, but sometimes things can be taken out of context and become confusing.

“If I said there were three homes knocked down today, by the time it gets to the end of the conversation, there might’ve been 12 that someone gets,” explained Button.“I can’t speak to what a councillor has said, but I have made it clear to council, the information that goes out comes from me and it should only be coming from me, and I don’t say that because I want to be the one that takes over the messaging and all that. I take it as this is a very sensitive issue. We are talking about people’s lives, and we do not want to make a mistake and put out wrong information. We want to be clear. It’s why I try to be clear on my messages in the evening. I can’t give you information I am only guessing at. I don’t want to be guessing with people’s lives.”

The Town has multiple issues still to address. Among them is the cleanup of the debris and fuel oil in the harbour and coves, as there are still large appliances, for example, that have yet to be removed. Button said there are ongoing conversations about this too.

“We’ve been talking to DFO and other organizations within both levels of government, talking about having the debris removed from our oceans and the coves. We’ve started some minor stuff on that and we’re trying to look at how it’s going to be done, but the conversations are on that exact piece because we have – in our coves and harbours right now – we have quite a bit, it’s pretty extensive. So there is a plan and there are conversations on how that is going to be tackled.”

Since so much is left to be cleaned up and fully assessed, Button said it is still impossible to put an exact dollar amount on how much damage has been done.

“I haven’t been given an exact dollar amount on it all because engineers are still working at compiling the information and – to try and put this into some sort of perspective – we’re also dealing with properties that are not there now but there are other properties that are no longer going to exist in these areas,” explained Button. “Our damages are in the millions, but where we are on that, I can’t give you a figure because the consultants and the engineering companies are still compiling that information on what it’s going to take to replace it all.That’s the sad part. There’s a bunch of people that are working all of this and until they try to break down all the numbers and put in all the replacements costs and what’s needed, it’s an undetermined amount right now.”

Whether or not the significant costs to repair infrastructure and rebuild will result in tax increases has yet to be determined.

“We’re hopeful – through the disaster funds and everything from the province and the federal governments that are helping in the event of the storm and what we’re doing – that a lot of that stuff will be covered under those programs,” said Button. “We’re not concerned about that right now. We had concerns about budgets prior to Fiona, but if I’m looking at Fiona as my major concern on what it would mean for taxpayers and stuff, right now I’m not thinking about that. I think we have both levels of government who are working with us, and the disaster relief funds are designed to help with that part of it. “

Button added that there are other factors to determine town taxes, not just the cleanup from Fiona.

“In our overall tax bracket, we are going to take a major hit with properties that aren’t there anymore so that’s going to have to be an added piece to it,” said Button. “Our budgets are pretty strained as it is when you go look at it, so I wouldn’t sit here as a mayor and report tonight that there was a budget increase, and we are going to blame it all on Fiona.”

Button hopes that the taxpayers will not have to bear any increase.

“We’re spending quite a bit of money now and money has to be hopefully recouped from all of this and I am hoping it’s not at the expense of our taxpayers, and we’ll try our best to make sure it is not. When it comes to budgets, we aren’t there yet, and I don’t want to blame budget increases on Fiona. May it have some sort of impact? It could, but there are other outlying things as well.”

To date, Button said over 300 inspections have been completed, and that includes everything from structural to electrical to environmental.

“To see how extensive all of this has been and how many people have been on the ground, how much data – there’s days I go home, and I’m rattled from what I’ve had to look at, what’s been talked about, and understanding why it takes as long as it does. This is not your average storm that we are dealing with,” said Button. “It’s unprecedented what has happened here. It’s been a major undertaking and there’s not an hour gone by in the days that there hasn’t been something, someone, or some department that hasn’t been engaged in this whole thing.”

Button said the biggest thing for the town now is to get as many peo￾ple as possible out of hotels and get them into a more permanent place, even if it’s just for the winter.

“We have been able to do that over the last couple of weeks. We’ve got some families moved. It’s a process that’s being worked on,” said Button. “We’re very fortunate that we don’t have anyone in shelters. Sometimes with a disaster people could be in a shelter for months, living in a gymnasium. We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had to do that long term. We have enough room to be able to have someone moved from a shelter to a hotel and it was ten times better – not ideal – but ten times better.”

Button understands the frustration, especially for those who have yet to receive any funding, but believes a lot of the kinks have now been worked out.

“I know there are still some people waiting, but I think that some of that comes to – and I want to be clear that the burden shouldn’t only be put on the Red Cross – some of it comes down to trying to find trying to find the means of how people want to receive it,” said Button. “Some people are receiving it through an e-transfer, some are getting it through cards, and some more will be getting it through a physical cheque, so I think with so much information being relayed in a short period of time I’m sure some things could have gotten, misunderstood, misinformation, not enough information in some cases. There was just so much information going out in the beginning on everything.”

MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) had a similar take. The scope of delivering the funds is simply monumental, and the Red Cross is currently dealing with residents throughout four separate provinces who were impacted by Fiona.

“Our goal is to be there for people, insurance or no insurance coverage.Regardless of the circumstances, we are trying and will ensure that we are there for everybody to help to get them back to normal. The problem is that it’s extremely complicated. It is taxpayers dollars, and so we have to have a sensible process that ensures that we take care of everyone in different circumstances, and at the same time we have an accountability at the end of the day too.”

The urgent concern is housing for most of the 96 permanently displaced families. Parsons said there are no quick solutions, especially as some have mobility issues or pets.

“The range of circumstances vary extremely from case to case,” said Parsons. “That’s the stuff that keeps me awake at night. Every time I think we’ve come to a solution, a new wrinkle presents itself.”

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