From lost homes to iPhones, Lac-Megantic seeks help rebuilding

Survivors of the Lac-Megantic, Que., rail disaster are dealing with not only grief, but an array of property losses that range in size from large homes to little iPhones.

The death toll from the explosions and fire last weekend rose to 20 on Wednesday, but police warned that about 50 persons are missing and most likely dead.

A variety of parties have offered to pitch in financially to help rebuild the material things in a community that has lost its downtown and many of its residents.

Resident Maude Verreault has called Apple Inc. inquiring about a comparably small loss.

The bar waitress stepped outside on a break as the train came barrelling into town. She ran for her life while her iPhone and purse were torched in the fire.

Verreault said she has insurance on her phone and she called Apple on Monday. She said she was told that she could not make a claim because it was a “natural disaster.”

She says she has insurance that covers breakage, loss, theft, etc.

“They told me, ‘No, since it was a natural disaster, we’re not paying,’ ” she said in an interview.

“This was not a natural disaster.”

After repeated messages over more than two days to the media line at Apple a person called back — stressing that she was not a spokesperson — and declined to comment. She said she would be willing to take down Verreault’s contact information and look into it.

On a much broader scale, the initial outlines of a long-term assistance effort have begun to take shape.

Emergency response teams, insurance brokers, and the company whose locomotive-gone-loose triggered the tragedy have all presented Lac-Megantic with varying levels of financial commitment.

The Quebec government promised Wednesday a three-tiered $60-million plan — with $25 million for urgent relief, $25 million more for rebuilding the devastated downtown core, and $10 million for longer-term economic aid.

“You can count on us,” Premier Pauline Marois said. She stressed that immediate access to support was paramount.

“When someone comes to ask for help, we want the cheque to head out that day,” she told a Quebec City news conference Wednesday. “We don’t want them to be told about some program that could help in three weeks.”

Marois said the $60 million sum was only a starting point, conceding that it would not cover all the costs and that it was cold comfort to people in Lac-Megantic.

“It’s not much consolation,” she said. “I know.”

As for the overall cost of material damage, the Insurance Business website cites industry sources speculating that it will be smaller than the 2011 wildfire in Slave Lake, Alta., which it said cost insurers approximately $700 million.

The Red Cross says it will help fill some of the void.

It wants to ensure, however, that its efforts complement what’s already being done by governments.

“We are now working to assess needs on a case-by-case basis,” said spokesperson Isabelle Paquette.

“We want to make sure that all needs are being covered, but that aid is not being duplicated.”

The Red Cross handed out grocery coupons Wednesday to residents that had been evacuated.

“Our priority today is focused on people going back into their homes ,” Paquette said. “They probably lost lots of food these last few days, so this way they go back and can start fresh.”

She wasn’t sure how long the response teams would stay on the scene, but was adamant that the organization wouldn’t leave anyone hanging.

“We will stay there as long as we have to.”

And then there’s life insurance.

The Insurance Business website says that while claims can’t normally be submitted for a lost person until seven years, companies are well aware of the Lac-Megantic disaster and could proceed faster.

In an effort to help manage the paperwork as residents struggle to back on their feet, the Insurance Bureau of Canada industry group has sent a mobile-assistance unit to the disaster scene.

Its Community Assistance Mobile Pavilion — CAMP — has been active in Lac-Megantic since Monday, providing residents with information about what compensation they might be eligible for from their private insurance companies.

The bureau recognizes that many of the devastated town’s 2,000 evacuated residents are in no position to access their personal documents and insurance policies.

CAMP’s aid is free, but does not extend to queries about government compensation.

The bureau has previously dispatched emergency-assistance programs for large-scale disasters, most recently deploying a similar effort to help Alberta residents cope with floods.

IBC spokesperson Line Pavant says the fact that the disaster is under criminal investigation won’t change anything in terms of coverage for those whose belongings have been lost.

“If something is covered, it’s covered,” she said. “The insurance company will honour the contract.”

The only difference, she said, is that depending on the outcome of the investigation insurance companies might be eligible to demand compensation from those responsible for the tragedy.

But that issue might not be resolved for a while. A criminal investigation is barely underway.

Representatives from the embattled train company — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways — have also promised to contribute to the Lac-Megantic’s reconstruction.

During his visit to the town Wednesday, company chairman Ed Burkhardt confirmed the railway’s offer of support.

Burkhardt said the corporation intends to partner with the Red Cross, insurers and governments in funding humanitarian aid and rebuilding homes.

“We want to set up a dialogue with the people in this town and find out what issues they have as a result of this,” he said.

“We don’t have a total on this in any sense, and I don’t think we will for a long time.”

But he stressed that the company would live up to its responsibilities: “Our financial resources are going to be devoted to this… This comes first.”