Months after an explosion, a city is deserted and with no answers

It’s not a disaster scene like the one left by the recent devastating floods or wildfires in British Columbia. But the effects of an explosion last August in Wheatley, Ontario, similarly turned the lives of hundreds of people in that city upside down.

Not long after returning from the British Columbia flood report, I went to Wheatley and found a community in suspended animation. My report on the mystery surrounding the gas explosion that razed three buildings and turned the city center into a no-go zone, cut off from electricity and other utilities, came out this week.

[Read: Mysterious Gas Leak Unnerves Canadian Town]

Most of Wheatley is still standing. Only three buildings, including a recently opened motel, at the city’s intersection were destroyed. But after fleeing their homes in late August, members of only about half of the 100 displaced households were allowed to return for just an hour to grab clothes and other personal belongings. Nearly all of the community’s shops, small businesses and professional offices will remain closed.

As I wrote in my article, determining what caused the explosion is still a mystery to researchers. The most likely sources are two 19th-century natural gas wells buried beneath the city center. But the constant threat of another explosion has delayed the investigation, much to the frustration of people who have been evicted from their homes for more than four months.

Late one afternoon, I met Stephanie Charbonneau at the gate that keeps her just steps from “Big Red,” her family’s large brick home. Like many people in the city, she described the family’s situation as almost surreal.

If a tornado swept through the neighborhood, Ms. Charbonneau said, “you can take the wreckage with you to help you process what happened to you.”

“We just don’t have that to process what we’ve been through,” she added.

Mrs. Charbonneau, of course, did not wish to have a tornado over her town. But the effect of the explosion was similar. However, because of the potential danger, her insurance company has still failed to send workers into the house to drain the radiators and water pipes. Since some pipes have recently been frozen in the farmhouse that is her family’s temporary home, Mrs. Charbonneau fears the worst for her unheated home.

While there was no widespread destruction in Wheatley, I saw the same sense of community coming together to help people out of their homes that I had seen in British Columbia before. Everyone had a story about being helped with housing, clothing, even Christmas presents for children by people living outside the closed zone or in neighboring communities.

The need is very real. The local food bank, which had to move, was serving five to seven families a week in early 2020. Currently, it has 40 customers, including individuals and families. It now also offers to include household items and clothing. Donors have been so generous that the food bank is outgrowing its space, which includes a refrigerated trailer.

For local businesses, the state of uncertainty in the city has increased tensions caused by pandemic closures. Fortunately for the local economy, the fish processing plants and shipyard that are the major local employers are located on the shoreline of Lake Erie, a short drive or long walk from downtown.

Locally, there is talk that if no lasting solution to the leaking gas can be found, it may be necessary to move the city center down towards the harbour.

However, that can trade one problem for another. In recent years, a long stretch of the former county highway, Wheatley’s Main Street, has been closed several miles east of town. It runs on top of a cliff that has eroded, most likely due to climate change, to the point where officials fear the road will disappear into Lake Erie.

While none of the people I met in Wheatley said they expected a gas explosion — or even knew the town would have been built on three abandoned wells — the question of the oil and gas industry’s past is that in the present haunts not unique to the city. It’s a major problem in Alberta, where there are about 71,000 abandoned wells in need of cleaning, although they are mostly located outside urban areas.

Shopping is now very limited in Wheatley. Outside the restricted zone are a gas station, a feed store and the provincial liquor store. But if you’re looking for a liter of milk or a loaf of bread, you’ll have to get behind the wheel.

But until new Covid restrictions came into effect across Ontario, the city had one staging area. Hilary Hyatt was able to restore her cafe and restaurant, Lil Hil’s, in the clubhouse of a golf course on the eastern edge of town.

Ms. Hyatt told me she was grateful to be back at work. And she lives by the lake, far from the closed zone. But like everyone I’ve met in Wheatley, she wants the uncertainty to end.

“I want my city back,” she told me. “I don’t think it will ever be the same – that’s long gone. But I do believe our community will find a way to make it feel like home again.”

Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported on Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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