Crews work to repair the damage to St. John The Baptist Church. Photo courtesy Fr. Augustine Joseph

‘Heartbreaking’ flooding hits Fort McMurray

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • May 15, 2020

EDMONTON -- Having lived through their share of disaster, residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., are reeling in the aftermath of flooding that forced thousands to evacuate and damaged many buildings, including St. John The Baptist Church — the most central place of Catholic worship.

Restoration crews continue to clean up the basement of the 50-year-old church, and the basement of the adjacent office building, after it filled with more than six feet of water and raw sewage April 26-27. Both buildings had been renovated recently.

A damage estimate isn’t available because it’s still unsafe for insurance adjusters to enter the buildings. The cleanup and restoration is expected to continue until the end of May. The pastor called the situation “heartbreaking.”

“We could never dream in a million years that the water could come up to the church,” said Fr. Augustine Joseph, the pastor of St. John The Baptist Church, in his first interview since the disaster.

“We’re not looking too far down the road, but we’re focusing currently on what we can do for our people, for our church,” he said. “We will rise back to life. We will rise back to life, because the people of Fort McMurray are pretty tough. They have gone through so many tough times and survived.”

The flooding came in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and just four years after the devastating 2016 wildfires that destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings.

The flooding damaged at least 1,230 properties and displaced 13,000 residents, according to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The disaster was the result of a 25-kilometre ice jam on the Athabasca River that caused water levels to rise in low-lying areas.

The city’s other Catholic church, St. Paul’s, is located high enough above the city that it’s undamaged.

Flood damage to residences alone in Fort McMurray could top $100 million, according to Don Scott, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The Alberta government is providing residents who were evacuated with emergency funding of $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent child.

Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul said Fort McMurray will rise again.

“The hope is the hope of all Christians everywhere who face disasters, repeated disasters. We know that we’re journeying on this side of eternity, and we often have challenges and experiences of various levels of the cross,” Terrio said.

“We’re not surprised when we have to experience the cross even when it’s repetitive. We know that all of this is not all there is. The people in Fort McMurray are very resilient.”

(Grandin Media)

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