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Secrecy under scrutiny in Burnt Islands

Holly and Guy Keeping. — Submitted photo

By Rosalyn Roy Senior Staff Reporter – with files from René J. Roy

BURNT ISLANDS — Approaching the one-year mark since Hurricane Fiona wreaked havoc on the Southwest Coast, the contrast between the fates of two neighboring communities, Port aux Basques and Burnt Islands, remains stark. While Port aux Basques residents have received answers and assistance from their town councillors, the residents of Burnt Islands, just a 20-minute drive away, believe that they have not been as fortunate. In Port aux Basques, compensation packages have been distributed, and a flood risk mitigation zone, often referred to locally as flood zone mapping, has been established, identifying additional homes that must be demolished due to their unsafe locations in Phase 2. Homeowners have been notified that their compensation packages will be presented to them and another 57 homes and 2 businesses will come down in Spring 2024. With the exception of one owner, all 102 total loss homeowners have received their compensation package buyouts under Phase 1 of the recovery plan. In contrast, Burnt Islands, though having lost fewer than 15 homes, is grappling with the same worries and uncertainties as their neighbors only 20 minutes up the coast. “It just doesn’t seem like anything is going to work for us. It’s like we’ve been dropped off the map,” remarked Holly Keeping during a visit to her home on the island portion of Burnt Islands. Holly and her husband, Guy, have been relentlessly seeking information on the flood mitigation mapping, but feel they have made no progress. Their hurricane-related losses include their back deck, most of their lawn, and the supporting wall around their shed, which stands beside their house and was almost washed away. Nearly a year later, the Keepings remain uncertain about whether or not they will receive armor stone to reinforce their property, be bought out, or simply have to rely on luck to protect them. On February 17, 2023, the Burnt Islands town council requested flood zone mapping, information confirmed through an email obtained via ATIPP (Access to Information Act) requests, addressed to Paula Dawe at the Department of Environment and Climate Change. As of now, there is no evidence that the town of Burnt Islands has yet to receive any flood zone mapping, and the reasons for this delay remain unclear. Minutes from Town Council Meetings, also obtained by Wreckhouse Press through multiple ATIPP requests, shed little light on the council’s actions. For example, in the minutes of the council meeting held on November 23, 2022, Hurricane Fiona was discussed, with the entire entry reading: “Hurricane Fiona: Clerk provided the council with an update. Council held a discussion on the matter.” This lack of detailed records has left the Keepings and Wanda and Gary Taylor frustrated, as they are among the residents who still struggle to understand the council’s efforts on their behalf. The Taylors, residing near Fox Roost, sustained damage to their home deemed repairable by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are eligible for $44,000 in financial assistance to repair their homes, but Wanda Taylor is hesitant to accept the funds without clarity on whether they will be relocated. “We have no insight into what’s next. Here I am with $44,000 worth of damages and no answers,” said Mrs. Taylor. She fears that accepting the funds and repairing her home could complicate her chances of a buyout or leave her vulnerable to future disasters, given her home’s location near the ocean, which she believes reduces the resale value since Fiona. Both the Keepings and the Taylors have sought help from the town council, but have been met with limited information. Wreckhouse Weekly also made numerous inquiries to council, but received little clarity and were forced to ATIPP records that are normally readily made available for public scrutiny and in compliance with existing Municipal Affairs legislation. In over two months of trying, the newspaper only secured a single interview with one town official, and spoke with Mayor Alfred Taylor on June 29. Taylor was on leave for personal reasons starting in December 2022 and was still on leave in February 2023. Taylor remarked, “You can only kick a horse so many times for answers. Once it was in the hands of the government—municipal, provincial, and federal—it was beyond the town’s control to make unattainable promises.” Taylor believed that the town was waiting on more answers from Municipal Affairs, and stated that there had been no update he was aware of since February. Efforts to interview the Deputy Mayor, who served as acting mayor during the Mayor’s leave of absence, were consistently ignored until he eventually declined all interviews, stating, “I don’t have any more to add that isn’t already out there.” Transparency seems to be a problem in Burnt Islands. One reporter’s attempt to attend a public council meeting was met with open hostility, with Councillor Wallace Kinslow publicly screaming profanity at them and causing such a scene that the reporter feared for their safety and left. The councillor also attempted to deny entry to the public meeting, and the Wreckhouse Weekly subsequently made an official complaint to Municipal Affairs. Local journalists routinely attend council meetings in Port aux Basques, and review public council records from other municipalities within the Southwest Coast region, but dates and times of Burnt Islands meetings are not publicly posted. Public tenders are also not posted on social media, the newspaper, or on the town website, which itself hasn’t been updated in well over a decade. The Keepings, Taylors, and other families still in limbo almost a year after Hurricane Fiona have attended two town council meetings, ostensibly as a delegation, seeking an opportunity to voice their concerns. The first delegation took place on February 6, 2023, with minutes indicating that the delegation spoke and requested consideration in Phase 2, which involves flood zone mapping. The council’s response was a promise to provide updates as soon as they became available. Eleven days later, the council did make the request for mapping, but they failed to inform residents of this action. Both the Keepings and the Taylors were unaware of the request until reviewing Fiona-related records. In Port aux Basques, residents received a similar letter from Paula Dawe (Department of Environment and Climate Change) offering flood zone mapping, which they accepted. However, while the mapping process took about four months in Port aux Basques, it has not yet been completed in Burnt Islands. In addition, multiple requests to the DFAA (Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements) have gone unanswered. On June 21, the affected families went to speak as a delegation once again, and this time, the council allowed them to voice their concerns. The conversation was rather passionate at times, with Councillor Max Keeping expressing frustration by stating, “I don’t get paid enough for this.” Perhaps the most distressing aspect faced by Burnt Islands residents is the apparent lack of empathy. On September 7, 2022, shortly before Hurricane Fiona, the council approved a mileage rate increase, raising it from $0.38 per kilometer to $0.73, higher than the provincial average and twenty-three cents higher than Port aux Basques councillors. Furthermore, during the release of their annual budget on January 4, town council increased the wages of the Town Clerk while also raising the water rate per household in town by $40. Burnt Islands residents have been under a long-standing boil water advisory, with restricted access to centralized water sources. Residents can only get water at scheduled times during the week, on Mondays to Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and on Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., in order to prevent the tank from emptying. There is currently no scheduled access on the weekends. Holly Keeping stated that she received no copy of the annual budget through the mail, did not see it posted on the town’s website or social media, and was unaware of the water tax increase before being asked about it by journalists. “Due to my husband having (had) a kidney transplant, he has to be very careful of the water he drinks, for certain bacteria. It’s very frustrating, not to mention how much it costs to buy bottled water,” said Keeping. Meanwhile repeated requests from the Burnt Island residents for a public town meeting with MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – La Poile) and Minister John Hogan (Justice and Public Safety) have also been met with silence, though residents have confirmed that Parsons has privately reached out to them on a case-by-case basis. It seems residents of Burnt Islands will continue to grapple with these challenges, and will have no choice but to continue to wait for more clarity, support, and empathy from their council and government authorities. That is becoming increasingly difficult for some. Almost a full year after Hurricane Fiona tore through the region, Holly Keeping said she “can’t stand this anymore”. “The engineer was supposed to be here by today (Friday, Sept. 1) and now it may be next Thursday,” said Keeping. “I am sick of it.”

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