21 November 2013
Rapid Remake of Quebec Town
Brings Hope and Heartache
Lake Megantic Quebec - Dragan Popara's optimism could serve as a model for the devastated town of Lake Megantic.
He knows how to start over again, having done it more than once.
Born and raised in Bosnia, Popara fled to neighbouring Montenegro with his wife and young daughter when war broke out in the 1990s.
With his worldly possessions stuffed into two bags, he left behind friends, family, and his beloved cafe.
Five years later, the family left their sanctuary and Popara's job in a fancy restaurant to come to Canada.
The man from Lake Megantic who processed their papers at the Canadian embassy in Belgrade extolled the virtues of his hometown and the Popara clan was sold.
For 15 years, he worked days at the local Walmart while delivering pizzas at night in order to get back into the business that violence and insecurity forced him to leave behind.
He set his sights on an idyllic restaurant, Le Citron Vert, that is perched over Lake Megantic's marina, where the Chaudiere River meets the lake for which the town is named.
He took over the business licence and possession of the city-owned building on 16 Jan 2013.
"I always dreamed of running a restaurant. I succeeded, but my dream didn't last very long. Just six months," Popara says as a weary smile breaks through the stress and exhaustion that has hounded him these last four months.
The deadly train derailment and explosions decimated this town of 6,000 people in the early morning hours of 6 Jul 2013.
Forty-seven people were killed and a wide swath of Lake Megantic's picturesque downtown, filled with boutiques, restaurants, and homes was destroyed by flames, debris, or crude oil that leached into the ground.
But four months on from the disaster, the town is moving quickly to rebuild what was lost.
At the rate of about $4 million a week, it is costly.
The mammoth undertaking is also bringing both hope and heartbreak to local residents and entrepreneurs.
To build a new downtown on new, uncontaminated land, officials must first expropriate a swath of homes and businesses that no longer figure in the city's future plans.
Amid the loss of life, the loss of business, the worries, and the stress, rapid progress has been made.
The black tarps that were draped over the metal fencing to keep prying eyes from the gruesome search for bodies at the crash site have now come down.
The exhausted firefighters and rescue crews have been replaced by construction workers in hard hats and vests.
For the visitors, the volunteers, media, and morbidly curious, who had never set eyes on the town before the crash and were held back by security cordons in its aftermath, it is now possible to see what Lake Megantic used to look like.
You can see where the train tracks traversed Frontenac Street, the main strip, at that fateful moment on 6 Jul 2013.
Crews are busily hammering new rails into place in the exact same spot the old ones lay.
You can see where the Musi-Cafe stood.
Like most of its last-call patrons who were killed in the accident, the popular bar is gone.
In its place is a four-storey high mountain of contaminated earth.
That soil, like much of the ground around it, has been ruined by the petroleum, the toxic metals, and chemicals that spilled from the shorn tankers, leached deep underground and ran downhill toward the waterfront.
Because no one yet knows how long it will take to dig it all out, decontaminate it, and put it back in place, the old downtown, once home to apartments, storefronts, the municipal library, and restaurants, will become a vast, commemorative park.
The freshly poured concrete curbs that mark the contours of future roads are now leading off in a new direction, to a new downtown a few hundred metres to the east.
That new downtown will be modest.
The 45,000 square feet of subdivided strip mall is almost ready for businesses to move in, but it will have none of the charm of the historic buildings that were reduced to rubble or condemned.
But it is enough to give Popara hope for the future, even if his waking hours are consumed by what he has lost.
The reminders of things now gone are stacked before Popara on the family dinner table where he sits with wife Marjana and Marco, his son.
There are piles of bills, insurance claims, ledgers, and letters.
Most haunting is the lime-green reservation book filled with the names and numbers of those who planned to eat at his restaurant on the day of the accident.
He calculates that he would have brought in about $7,000 that Saturday night.
Instead, he soon learned that his insurance policy was better suited to a kitchen fire than a train explosion.
He is now $60,000 in debt and on medical stress leave after getting back his previous job at Walmart.
His old restaurant was demolished earlier this month to let work crews get to the 4,000 cubic metres of soil that was saturated with oil when the 72-car train spilled most of its load.
"We've been happy, we've been mad, we've been frustrated. We've had all the emotions because one day it's going well, we're good, we're insured. The next day, we explode," says Marjana.
"But," Popara adds, "we choose to focus on the positive."
The positive, for Popara, is an 18-page lease that he is negotiating with city officials.
City hall will be the landlord for new downtown businesses.
The goal is to have the new downtown area open for business in early 2014 so the substance of what has been lost can start to be replaced.
Replacing the spirit of optimism and confidence in the future may take a bit longer for others.
To build the second phase of Lake Megantic's new downtown, the city intends to tear down a strip of homes and businesses that stand in the way.
That strip is located along Salaberry Street in a neighbourhood called Fatima.
Elevated train tracks and the Chaudiere River form a physical and mental block between this sector, which has been the afterthought of urban planners for too many years, and the polished facade of the old downtown.
It is in Fatima that the city's rush to rebuild has collided with the likes of 54-year-old Manon Rodrigue.
Rodrigue's kitchen and living room occupy the front half of the two-storey stone house that her grandfather built by hand 102 years ago.
The back half of the ground floor is dedicated to the Magy Forme tanning salon, which she says used to do a brisk business with more than two-dozen clients a day.
The business tanked after the train crash in July, a month in which she earned a grand total of $253.
Sunbeds and base tans fell by the wayside in a town that had lost too many friends, family, and incomes.
Rodrigue's drive to lure back her customers also came to a halt when she and her husband, George Leclerc, learned their home was to be expropriated under Bill 57, a provincial law giving the city sweeping powers to rebuild their town.
The initial compensation offer for their property, the evaluated worth of the building plus an extra 15 percent, was delivered by a no-nonsense employee from a firm hired to handle the touchy task.
"I remember because it was George's birthday," Rodrigue says.
"They called at 10 minutes to four, they arrived at four and at 10 minutes past four it was finished."
They had until 11 Oct 2013, a Friday, to mull over the offer, but were going away for the weekend.
Rodrigue called the day before to reschedule a face-to-face meeting.
"They said they had no intention of coming by the next day. They said, we'll deal with this over the phone," she recalls.
"I said, whoah, we're not selling my house by telephone."
They eventually agreed in late October to sell to the developers for a marginally higher price than that which was originally offered.
But they are now worried about future employment, feeling like yet another casualty of the disaster that struck their town.
"It's sad because it's like your home is not your home. The house belongs to who? Not me. It belongs to the government," said Leclerc, who is on long-term disability leave after an accident at a local furniture manufacturing plant and facing reduced payments in the coming months.
"With Bill 57, whether or not you agree, you're leaving."
For the people along Salaberry Street the red-and-white sign in front of the silver spire of the Notre-Dame-de-Fatima church is the symbol of their shaken faith in the future.
The church was shuttered after its last service in late September.
The sign announces that it will be the future site of a Metro supermarket.
The grocery store is to be the anchor tenant in this new section of downtown, but until negotiations over the sale are completed, nothing is certain for those threatened with expropriation.
The deal that Rodrigue and Leclerc signed to sell their home only goes ahead if Metro agrees to build on the old church site.
The same conditions apply to each home and business marked for removal on the north side of Salaberry.
So when the red-and-white Metro sign mysteriously disappeared one night in late October from the church's front lawn, the distress that went up and down the street was predictable.
The local newspaper published a piece on the "mystery surrounding the sign."
The rumour mill said it was a bargaining tactic by the supermarket chain that had its intended result, a flood of frantic telephone calls that jammed the city hall switchboard.
It seems only reasonable to expect panic from people whose homes and pay cheques are dependent on a deal between strangers.
A Metro spokesperson referred inquiries on the negotiations to the city.
Mayor Colette Roy Laroche, a retired school teacher, whose term in office was extended through to 2015 to deal with the rebuilding, has said she is unable to comment on the negotiations.
A growing number of people are beginning to question her inability or unwillingness to assure her townsfolk.
After a barrage of questions from worried residents at a 4 Nov 2013 council meeting, Roy Laroche provided few answers, pleading instead for patience and understanding.
"The rumours that have been coming out over the last few weeks," she says, "we're hearing about them at the same time as everyone else."
So as fall turns to winter, the goodwill is fading.
One woman, who asks not to be identified because her husband works for the municipality, explains that they were first informed their house would not be expropriated.
When that proved wrong, they reached a deal on the conditional sale of their property, which will be torn down to make way for a bridge across the river, she says.
They made a conditional offer on another house nearby but worry with every passing day that the owner will, like them, run out of patience.
Even if things do move ahead soon, the woman will still likely have to move both her home and her home daycare business in the winter cold.
"It's not the leaving that's difficult," she says.
"It's the not knowing when it's going to happen."
At the other end of the Salaberry strip is the machine shop that belongs to Maurice Mercier.
A fixture in Fatima, the shop is located on "Mercier Alley."
The alley leads to the oversized shed with a long-since faded sign where he launched his business four decades ago.
In a baseball cap and his stained, knee-length blue shop coat, he no longer works for the money.
The cast-metal machines, the tools hanging on the wall, and the shavings that litter the floor are now his source of pleasure.
But to build the new downtown, Mercier's paradise is to become a parking lot for customers who will one day come here not for tool repairs but diapers, milk, and prescriptions at a future pharmacy.
Developers have offered him $107,000 for his land plus an extra 15 percent.
"Is it enough for them to pay me to go somewhere else? No. What's reasonable is for them to take me and set me up at another location. I don't want a cent. I just want to continue working," he says.
Most of Lake Megantic's entrepreneurs feel the same, but not all.
An estimated 10 percent of businesses affected by the train crash have either taken down their signs or are considering getting out of business, says Isabelle Halle, director general of the local chamber of commerce.
For some the insurance payments are not arriving quickly enough.
Others have been swamped by the financial load of leasing a new property while coping with the damages and losses at the pre-crash location.
Still, those who have decided to stick it out after the catastrophe have shown their determination to rebuild bigger and better, to use the disaster as a sort of economic catapult, she says.
Among those is Popara, who has recovered the sign from his old restaurant to use at his new location.
It is stored in the basement of his home, along with Le Citron Vert's lime-green menus and other decorations that once adorned the wall.
"It won't be on the waterfront," he admits, "but there's this..."
From his pile of paperwork, he pulls out a letter he received in late October informing him that when the decontamination has been completed, the city plans to build another restaurant on the water's edge.
Slowly, Popara's worries about hanging on to one restaurant are turning into dreams of operating out of two locations.
"I keep imagining that I closed my restaurant on the Friday night (before the train crash).
I turn the key, lock the door, and leave at 11:10 p.m., ready to return the next night," he says.
"The catastrophe occurred and I keep thinking that after five or six months I will take the key again, open the door, and continue working. That's my style."