It is the tiniest islands of normalcy that provide some solace in the emergency shelters crowded with evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires. Jenn McManus, vice-president of operations for Alberta with the Canadian Red Cross, has spent much of the last week at the Expo Centre at Northlands in Edmonton, which has been transformed into a 1,300-bed shelter. On Mother’s Day, flowers suddenly appeared by the bucketful. There were children swarming everywhere, and fathers taking bouquets from staff and volunteers to present to their partners. McManus’s voice dissolves into tears when she talks about it. “You know, my brain and my heart probably haven’t caught up with each other yet,” she says. To her, that moment of sweetness and beauty demonstrated how even in an unpredictable, uncontrollable emergency, people are still anchored by their ties to each other. “This is going to be a long haul, so let’s celebrate the small things,” she says. “Because this is going to be challenging, and it’s going to be difficult.”
The wildfires that destroyed large swaths of Fort McMurray and forced the evacuation of its 88,000 residents have inspired an unprecedented outpouring of support from across the country. As of Monday, the Canadian Red Cross had received $60 million in donations for the ravaged oil sands city—and that’s before the funds the federal government has pledged to match individual donations. That sum dwarfs the $43.3 million that was raised in 2013 after the Alberta floods, which was the organization’s largest domestic appeal before this week.
But in the shelters, with a return to their community still weeks away, it’s still much too early for evacuees to think about what they might need to rebuild their lives. When McManus wanders around the Northlands facility, people’s hunger for information about what they left behind, and what’s left of it, is obvious: they hunch over their phones at charging stations, trading information with friends and family, or cluster around the televisions blaring news. Her staff and volunteers encourage evacuees to take a break from it once in a while; it’s just too emotionally exhausting otherwise. “Families and individuals are coming off that fight-or-flight adrenalin rush that happened last week with the evacuation,” she says. “Now the reality and impact and scope of this is starting to settle in.”
McManus has seen little moments of kindness and dignity among people who have precious little control over anything right now. There are big bowls of fruit where people can help themselves or their families, and kiosks offering juice boxes, water from Labatt, and pop. Tim Hortons showed up with trucks stocked with hot coffee and tea. People hold doors for each other, or trade off playing with their children in the kid-friendly shelter spaces so they can give other parents a break. The other day, McManus passed a mother sitting a table reading while her children scribbled in colouring books. “That, for them for 20 minutes, is a pocket of normalcy and peace, and hopefully a little bit of recharging,” she says.
The numbers are starting to decline in shelters as people make arrangements to stay with family and friends. They’re always on alert for new arrivals because everything is still in flux, but staff and volunteers know that mass shelters are not easy places to live, and displaced people feel a bit of empowerment when they can find their own accommodations.
As of Monday, the Red Cross had 600 staff members and trained volunteers pitching in. The organization’s offices in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and Grande Prairie are helping evacuees who have landed in those cities, while other staff and volunteers are on the ground assisting at emergency shelters in Lac la Biche, Edmonton and Calgary. They’re distributing gift cards—pre-paid Visa cards, Wal-Mart, Esso, Co-Op, Canadian Tire—to help with whatever evacuees need at the moment. The Red Cross stockpiles these cards for the personal disasters, such as house fires, that it most frequently responds to: one every three hours around the clock on average.
Red Cross personnel are also helping to move the “highly vulnerable”—families including pregnant women and babies younger than six months old, for instance, and people with mobility issues or health problems—out of shelters and into hotels or university and college residences that were vacated by students just in time to answer this need. “Sometimes, you have to find the silver lining,” says McManus. “Hands down across Alberta, the generosity and openness to coordinate and put resources on the table has been truly remarkable.”
It’s up to leaders like McManus to make sure their staff are looking after each other and themselves as they try to help others. They’re careful with scheduling so everyone gets downtime, and Red Cross personnel always work in pairs at minimum so they have someone around for support. On Sunday, one week after McManus began monitoring the gathering emergency and put staff across Alberta on standby, she found a care package in her office from her colleagues: chocolates, lip gloss, a bottle of water and a note: “Go get ’em!”
Her own Mother’s Day celebration was a little bit delayed. On Monday evening, she subbed herself out of the staffing rotation for one day so she could return to Calgary to see her sons, aged seven and 10. She’d been gone nearly a week, but they’d told her on the phone that morning that it was okay, they understood: she was busy doing good stuff. “Coming from a 10- and seven-year old?” McManus says. “I can take that.”
A helicopter flies past the wildfire on Wednesday, May 4, the day of the mass evacuation