May Executive Blog

Over the past few days, my heart has ached as I witnessed the devastation caused by the fires in Fort McMurray. Having grown up in Fort McMurray, and having gone through the 2013 Alberta flood, this disaster really hits home. So many people have had to leave their homes, not knowing if they will ever see them again. They had to rush to grab what little they could as they hurried away to safety. Many left with just the clothes on their backs, without any assurance of what would come next. This is an overwhelming time for these people, one that very few truly can understand.

I visited Slave Lake and saw the damage caused by that fire. Back then, I thought I had a small idea of what those people must have gone through. It wasn’t until I went through the flood in 2013 that I realized I had absolutely no idea what those people had went through. I had seen the physical destruction and visualized what it would have been like to go through the disaster, but I did not comprehend the emotional challenges faced by these people. Words can not adequately describe the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness you feel when you are forced to leave your home, not knowing when or if you will be coming back to it.

When the 2013 flood hit, I was in downtown High River at ground zero. Before I knew what was happening, the office that I worked at was completely surrounded by water. I hurried to get out with my coworkers, and when I pulled out of the parking lot the water came up to my windshield and my car died. Water immediately came flooding underneath the doors and I was barely able to get out of my vehicle. The current was so strong I had to brace myself against my car so that I wouldn’t get knocked over. Luckily, a truck pulled up soon after getting out of my car and the driver helped pull me out of the water and drove me home. It was right after this that my family left High River with just the clothes on our backs and a few essentials for our 6-month old daughter.

After that experience, I did not sleep for next three days. Anytime I would try to go to sleep, I would re-live the experiences of that day and would wake up in a panic. Talking to many other evacuees, I learned that my experience was not unique. The vast majority of those affected struggled to sleep in those first few days, and many others struggled to deal with their emotions as days turned into weeks, and there was still no end in sight to the disaster. Those that are going through the disaster in Fort McMurrary will have their own experiences, which will be different in many ways from mine, but anyone can see how traumatizing this experience would be. To have to leave your home and slowly drive out of your city with flames roaring around you is hard to even imagine.

We have looked at our membership list and there are currently at least 230 active AUSU members who live in Fort McMurray, and here at AUSU, our hearts go out to each of you. With the trauma that this disaster brings and will continue to bring, we want to remind our members about the Student Lifeline service that we offer. This free service is available to all our members and includes 24/7 support, access to counselling, and other health and wellness resources. We encourage our members to take advantage of this program, especially those going through this terrible disaster. For more information regarding the Student Lifeline service, visit our webpage here.

For those impacted by the fires, we want to also reiterate the resources that Athabasca University is offering you. The university has announced said that they will waive fees for course extensions and late exams or replace lost course materials for free. They are also offering course refunds for those Fort McMurray members who would rather withdraw from their course(s). AU offered these services to students during the flood, and speaking from experience, I found AU to be very helpful and accommodating during this trying time. I would encourage all AU students who have been evacuated due to the fire to consider what option is best for them. I personally tried to finish my courses with course extensions, but I wish that I had withdrawn instead. I found that it took over six months for me to get to a point where I was mentally able to really start focusing on my studies again, and even then it was a struggle. However, there are numerous options available. For more information regarding the services being offered to AU students, check out the news release by AU here.

HopeThe last thing that I would say to those affected by this disaster is to try to have hope. You are not alone – we all care for you and want to help. I was overwhelmed by all of the help that I received from complete strangers during the flood, and I already see people everywhere trying to help raise money, collect donations, and do anything that they can to help Fort McMurray residents. Albertans were there for Slave Lake, and there for High River, and we will be there for Fort McMurray.

There is a long road of recovery ahead, but there are many of us who are willing and waiting to help.

Brandon Simmons
AUSU VP External and Student Affairs