Sunday, October 02, 2005

No News Bad News In The Midst of Disaster

CORNER BROOK, NFLD. – Hello from western Newfoundland. We arrived at Deer Lake International Airport yesterday afternoon and were whisked off to meet with listeners and colleagues at the Corner Brook Arts and Culture Centre.

Just a simple meet and greet, coffee and baked goods. Purely social. But there were at least seven people I would love to have interviewed. And there were probably other people with stories that I didn't get to hear.

One of the extreme frustrations of this time in CBC history is meeting people I know would be compelling on the radio, but holding off because we can't do what we normally do. Even when a powerful, universal human narrative presents itself.

Such as the Stephenville Flood (see the damage in the photo above). Suffice it to say, it drives me nuts.

Anyway, Sue and I are staying with Doug and Shirley Greer. Shirley is an artist and quilter. And Doug is a locked-out video journalist based in Corner Brook. Doug is chauffeuring us across Newfoundland, to Grand Falls-Windsor for picket duty tomorrow morning, Gander at noon and into St. John's for a benefit for the people hit by the flood earlier this week in Stephenville.

And it is Stephenville that is today's destination.

Newfoundland is so ruggedly beautiful and western Newfoundland has its own singular beauty. Mountainous, lots of "ponds" (lakes by any other province's standard), tons of trees that have formed the basis of a once-thriving pulp and paper industry, and the ocean, of course. The mountains are saturated with colour so bold it is almost lurid.

We set off at 7:30 and the rising sun illuminates the landscape. It's hard to imagine being anywhere else. People are taking advantage of this gift of weather, pitching their trailers at gravel pit campgrounds beside the ubiquitous ponds and just soaking it in.

In the midst of this landscape is the town of Stephenville, population 8,000. Like many places in Canada, it has had, if not exactly times of boom and bust, then times of prosperity – and bust.

Here's some recent history. During the Second World War, the Americans leased land from the (then British) government and established a military base and later a Strategic Air Command unit. Stephenville can claim "Elvis was here" since he visited the base at one point in his youth.

It was good for the economy...the base, I mean. But it closed in the 1960's and the economy, like the service people, went south. But then The Labrador Liner Board Mill opened, so-called because the wood supply came from Labrador. It was a Joey Smallwood scheme that soon became unaffordable and the mill was closed. However, during Premier Frank Moore's tenure, Abitibi Consolidated took the mill over. And times were better if not downright good. Now, though, Abitibi Consolidated is closing up shop because the cost of power to operate the mill has vaulted prohibitively in recent years.

As you come into town, there are signs in all the store windows that read "Support Our Mill– Save Our Town." But layoff notices have gone out. The town is girding itself for another bust-time. This is the backdrop to our visit. And now with the flood, as one resident put it, people are being battered on all sides.We have brought shovels, gumboots and gloves.

We have a colleague, Chris Norman, whose sister's house has been severely damaged by the storm. When CBC is functioning, Chris is the executive producer of radio news and current affairs in Corner Brook. When CBC is functioning, she would be one of the first to know about a flood in Stephenville. Tuesday, though, she got a call on her cell phone out of the blue from a friend in New Brunswick while she was walking the picket line asking if her sister Valda in Stephenville was okay. Chris didn't know what her friend was talking about. It turns out Valda was not okay. Her home, and the homes of some 250 other residents, has been declared uninhabitable.

Valda lives beside what is normally a stream. On Tuesday, a 100 mm rainfall turned it into a gushing river. It came into her basement. She walked out to her car in waist-high water. All the main bridges were closed and many still are. And many roads have buckled with the force of the water. Some have have been washed out. Mature trees have been upended. Some of the sewer lines have ruptured. Drinking water is contaminated. Cars have been undermined. I guess you could say a lot of the town has been undermined.

Chris is taking us on a tour of Valda's house. She is dressed in hipwaders and a heavy-duty face mask hangs around her neck. We go into the basement. The wooden floor is coated with a thick slick of slippery mud. And there's a scum of water on the walls.

You may have seen some of the pictures in the paper. But what you can't tell from those pictures or the images on TV is that it stinks. The mould, the retreating wetness and the sewer smell make your eyes water. Everything is out of place. The large freezer was flipped over on its lid. The big piece of furniture that holds the TV and VCR was lifted right out into another room and placed against a wall. The Christmas decorations were damaged. Bunched up by a window are sprigs of artificial fir and a family relic – one of the miniature log cabins her father built for each of the kids. Now it's contaminated and has to be left where it is.

As Chris describes what the basement used to look like as a cozy family room, her voice is breaking. One day her sister's house was a home. The next day, a disaster zone.

The EMO people haven't come to Valda's yet, but they will. They have issued warnings at some houses already and evacuated others and are poised to put yellow tape across the whole area.

In light of what Chris's family is facing, the impact of the lockout pales in comparison. Chris is deeply saddened by what has happened. But she also feels deeply frustrated that CBC Radio wasn't here to cover it.

The "privates" are pulling out of town as things "normalize." This is a time when a compassionate country should be hearing about fellow citizens who are in dire straits. But Stephenville has become a 30-second script on the CBC hourly news.

Chris and I talk for about 10 minutes into a recorder. And then she goes over to the front license plate holder on her truck. She has a promotional plate that says: CBC Radio One: News and More. She gets out a black sharpie and changes the wording to CBC Radio None: No News and Nothing. It feels good, for a moment.

There's a crew of family, neighbours and lockout friends helping move Valda's salvaged furniture and "the stuff of her life" out of the house and into a nearby storage centre. Luckily almost everyone here has a truck. With many hands, the move goes quickly. Valda says she understands how awful it must have been for the people of New Orleans and adds, "when this dream is over, we're gonna have a party and drink some really strong Pepsi."

Everyone laughs.

Soon afterwards, the officials from Health and Environment come to assess her house. It isn't condemned, but there are orders: No furniture to be removed from the basement. No staying overnight. No drinking the water. Well, that goes without saying. With every minute, the toxins are settling in more deeply and spreading. Already, there are houses with telltale red stickers on their doors prohibiting entry.

In some cases, there has been looting. The RCMP is on patrol, making rounds 24 hours a day. In this close-knit community, it's so surreal.

This Monday night, there is a benefit in St. John's for the Stephenville flood victims. Newfoundland is a place where people pull together and help each other. Some of the musicians performing that night are from Stephenville. It's being put together by locked out producers and technicians and support staff from CBC.

They are saying it's the least they can do.

Were they at work, they would do so much more.

- Shelagh

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Anonymous site said...

It can't have effect in fact, that is exactly what I suppose.

4:15 AM  

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