Evacuating A Modern City: 5 Realities In A Real Apocalypse
Fort McMurray, Canada, made international news back in May, when God moved his magnifying glass right over it.
He was trying to warm it just a little.
Thanks to the fires, the city of 77,000 people was evacuated for nearly a month. 2400 buildings were destroyed, there were 3.58 billion dollars in damages, and special effects artists got a nifty new reference point for the apocalypse.
There should not be a house in this picture.
We spoke with six of those evacuees, to better learn what it's like to be an extra in a disaster movie. The first point they stressed: Even in an era of advanced warnings for just about everything from tsunamis to Game Of Thrones deaths, sometimes you have to drop everything in an instant and run. Drew explains ...
"The city had heard the fire was coming closer, but it was more a hassle than a threat. People would only complain about the smoke and ash. When it hit [a community on the outskirts], you could tell the attitude had changed. People were scouring the city for evacuation kits. The morning of the evacuation the sky was blue and calm. I just forgot about the imminent danger. The headlines from the emergency update seemed to say things were under control. We went about our lives. Around noon, the sky was filled with thick black smoke. I was rushing around to collect what I valued most. Shortly after, the first notice to be prepared to evacuate had been called. Maybe half an hour later the Emergency Alerts were blasting our radios. I have never seen more traffic in my life. We passed hundreds of cars abandoned, people parked on the side of the road expecting for this all to be called off. Campers were set up on the side of the highway. This drive should have taken an hour and a half on a normal day. We left at 3:30 [p.m.], and arrived at the [evacuation] camp shortly before [midnight]."
Police traveling on horseback don't look so dumb now, eh?
Unless you're the sort of person who keeps stacks of chlorine pills in a backyard bunker, you're probably not truly prepared for an emergency. Oh, you can have supplies and a plan. But emotionally, the idea of your home catching fire will never quite be real until it's right in front of you. Once that happens, it's chaos, as Derek explained:
"The radio stations continued to play music and made short announcements about evacuations. It got to the point where one of the hosts lost his nerve and just left. He started to panic and just wanted to get out. I don't blame him. Downtown looked like a ghost town. All the trees looked like burnt match sticks. My phone was flooded with text messages and voicemails yet I couldn't respond to any. Any out-going calls or messages failed. All I could do was listen to satellite radio and try and keep my mind off everything."
This was the line to get out of one community.
It's weird to picture a radio host panicking and vanishing, right? You don't really think of them as actual human beings, just voices that make terrible puns and play stupid sound effects. Well, there were a lot of surreal moments like that. Here's what Jarod saw: "It was pretty surreal to see the same Denny's I had eaten at recently with my girlfriend now totally on fire. I saw quite a few people right in front of us fall asleep at the wheel and almost go off into the ditch just because of the late night drive they weren't expecting to take."
Ronald's evacuation was also chaotic -- he had to decide what to throw in his car, and what he could risk leaving behind and possibly losing to the fire.
"Getting gas took almost 90 minutes. At 4 p.m. I found out we were on voluntary evacuation, and that the fire was only two blocks away. I went around the house taking pictures of everything I could, while gathering our marriage license, insurance documents, mortgage documents, passports, wallets, clothes. I stared at my Xbox for a good two minutes before deciding that I shouldn't take it or I'd be judged."
The other evacuees wouldn't see it in his car. But God would.
"It took almost an hour to get from my street to the main road out, a total distance of 500 feet. During that time, I saw houses to my left starting to catch fire, [and] a convoy of vehicles from that direction drive through a fence. The water bombers were only a few hundred feet away. It was eerie. Too quiet. There was no power, and all you could hear was the crackling fire in the distance. Buses and RVs were burnt, vehicles were crashed all over the place, trees were on the road. It looked like the apocalypse. I ended up hitting a burnt, felled tree on the way out of town and wrecked my brand new tires."
Ronald's long wait for gas.
Bryce was a volunteer with the evacuation effort because of his emergency management experience, so he was one of the last civilians to leave the city. And that was a whole other level of creepy. That level was right out of Silent Hill.
"I drove 110km/hr down the main road downtown with a speed limit of 50. The air was so thick and dark. I will never forget the image of the sheriffs and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers wearing full respirators waving us through. The hillsides were on fire right next to the highway, and entire areas of the city were engulfed. It was like Dante's Peak, crossed with a zombie apocalypse. Out of downtown, the Super 8 motel was engulfed in flames. It caught me off guard because usually at a fire there are fire trucks on scene. This time there was nothing around it to prevent the destruction."
Here's what's left of the Super 8.
Bryce pointed out that, while the evacuation was a stark reminder that you're always at the mercy of nature, it was a minor miracle (and the result of a lot of hard work) that everyone got out in around eight hours, with only two deaths in one traffic accident. That's about the best you can hope for when an entire element turns against you.
But while real disasters rarely have a single climatic cinematic moment wherein the Rock leaps over a chasm of fire to rescue someone's grandma, they do have a lot of smaller ones:
"We took a pit stop when we were approached by a couple of women who had brought crates of water for everyone leaving. It helped quite a bit because everyone had forgot to eat and drink before we left. It almost felt like everyone was your friend that night and that everyone had your back, it was incredible."
It was above and beyond even baseline Canadian friendliness.
Derek saw little bits of inspiration too: "I was fighting off a flood of emotions. I didn't know if I was sad, mad, stressed.... I did have an overwhelming sense of being lost. There were people stopping each vehicle. I was a bit confused and concerned. When I pulled up a lady and three of her children came up and asked 'Do you have a place to stay?' Here she was up at midnight offering rooms and spots on their property for anyone who needed it. I was blown away."
As was Carlos. "Our [work camp's] on the end of the road. And the guy who's delivering food, he's telling us that his house is burning down. And he's still working. I don't know if I could do that. Everybody is really going out of their way to help out. I went out with a friend, she just happened to mention that she was an evacuee and her meal was covered. My dad's in his 70s, retired. He helps immigrants. He gets furniture, clothing, bedding. And the day they started evacuating, he went down and his backseat was covered in boxes of socks. It's such a minor thing, but think about wearing the same pair of socks for five days. We're immigrants, I'm a first generation Canadian. My dad helped people whose families have been in Canada for hundreds of years. It's surreal."
"Carlos is a free elf," he said, tearing up.
Bryce witnessed a birth at his evacuation centre, and his own family had plenty of drama, too.
"My brother and sister-in-law were at the hospital as they gave birth to my niece at 1:30 that morning. Their house and my parent-in-law's house burnt to the foundation. In the same day, birth of their daughter and the loss of everything they worked for."
Bryce describes the aftermath:
"It took several days to decompress, assess my own mental health, and deal with an influx of emotions. At first I was numb to it all, not shock, but I hit an off switch to myself. I did shed tears after, it's important to accept emotions as they come."
It helped that the family now had a superhero.
But he did his job and moved on with his life, and sometimes that's all you can do. It's nice to think that every natural disaster ends with people marching right back in, rebuilding everything that was lost, and then lighting a few taunting bonfires just to show Mother Nature we don't scare easy. But reality is more complicated than that. Carlos noted that, for some people, there was simply nothing to come back to.
"There were a few people that were underwater on their houses. Things took a downturn, the housing market was very bubblish. And some people might not come back. They might just take their money and move. All of us spend our time trying to figure out what our next job is, because our jobs are very short term. Some of the people I've talked to are planning to take their money from insurance and bugger off."
Can you blame them?
Businesses went under, jobs were lost, and some people have made nasty discoveries about just how little their insurance covers. Furthermore, Ronald explained that scammers wasted no time in trying to profit from the misery.
"There's so many companies saying they're hiring, or asking for volunteers and a vast majority are fake. I have had friends get their identities stolen. Also heard of a lot of people at work scamming the government for Red Cross money for the Fort McMurray victims. Someone was caught trying to break into a safe of a burned down house."
Ronald isn't sure if the town will ever fully recover. But they'll try. "I think eventually it will feel normal, but it will be different. Two huge parts of town burnt down. It's going to be years and years before everything is 'done.' But things are already looking up. We were outside playing Pokemon Go and there was at least 20 people there, everyone being carefree and happy."
Just be god damn careful with that Charmander, you guys.
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Things You Can Only Learn By Surviving An Earthquake and 5 Things You Learn Surviving An F5 Tornado.
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