The last few days in Brandon and the entire Westman area have been interesting to say the least. When I walked out of my office on Saturday afternoon to peek around the corner and maybe snap a picture of the Christie’s building going up in flames, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. The building which was standing fine and fire free barely an hour before when I drove to work a few blocks away was completely engulfed in flames. As we streamed live for our FaceBook followers, no one could have predicted how fast and how far the flames and devastation would spread.
As we watched, history was made and history was lost with buildings and businesses that have been on the Brandon landscape for decades and even a century or more. The news and social media, including our own has been filled of late with the smokey ghostly images of the downtown landscape , the images are saddening to say the least – the fact that not a single person was hurt is amazing to me – I was there for four hours, almost from the start to the finish of the major damage (although emergency crews were on scene for a long time before and after) and everything happened so fast – I thing I am still in awe of the power of it. Fire has definitely earned my respect after this if it didn’t have it before. Watching it on TV is nothing to seeing it in person. Seeing the firefighters, police, paramedics on scene, choosing to run toward danger instead of away from it – these men and women inspired and humbled me to know end. I cannot say enough of the courage and professionalism I was witness to that day.
I think what has hit me the hardest though is the loss of Massey Manor. We saw it start on fire, then get put out or so we thought and then flare up again. Home to 50+ families, it is one of the few low-income housing blocks in a city that desperately needs more. On sight we talked to residents that had been evacuated as they watched their building go up in flames, unsure of what to do, where to go and what was going to happen. Since then we have learned that the building may be salvageable, that most of the damage was water and smoke and the potential for repair is possible. This is fantastic news for these families and for our community as a whole but the problem remains – repair or replace, it is going to take time and what happens to these families in the meantime?
We have see so much community outreach, the Red Cross, The Brandon Bear Clan, The Victoria Inn – just to name a few groups who have stepped up for emergency housing, clothing, food, supplies. A gofundme page was started within hours by community activist Kim Longstreet with a goal to raise $20,000 to help support the displaced families – at this writing it is at $12,000 and while I am not usually a fan of this fundraising platform, I trust Kim and know her motives are pure and the money will get to where it is needed most so I have personally donated as well. I have also seen other businesses and socials put up fundraising efforts and donations for the residents of the Manor – donations have been pouring in – support has been incredible and it warms my heart to see.
Now is where the pessimistic ‘But’ comes in…
What happens when the media attention moves on?
We have seen it. Right now, days after the event, emotions are high, attention is on and people want to help. That is a GOOD thing – a VERY GOOD THING but as we all know, life moves on. As media attention shifts to new news, upcoming events and as our lives roll on towards summer with graduations, weddings, vacations – we forget. We forget in the aftermath that there are so many still affected, who lives were altered forever. Now that is not our fault – we can not become victims ourselves out of empathy, life does go on – so it is now, now before attention fades that we need to do all we can to ensure that the future for these families is as ‘sorted’ as my English Nanny would say, as best it can be.
I have a business in the downtown area and in the slowest months of the year, I have to admit there was a selfish part of me that watched the flames on Saturday, saw the evacuation of the downtown area and power being cut that thought of myself. I did, I am human. I was upset at the loss of the busiest day of the week for my company, the day that pays the wages of my employees for the entire week. I thought about the lost income, I thought about how long I would be affected. I thought about what I would do if the wind shifted and my building was the next to burn. I thought about it. I am human. I am sure we all did. I wish I could say that all of my thoughts were on others that day. They weren’t. Does that make me selfish and shallow, some will think so but I think it was a natural human reaction that I acknowledged and pushed aside for thoughts of those families. And the reality is, I had insurance. If the fire shifted, I would have lost everything, but I could rebuild. I would lose a business, people would lose jobs, but we would all go home that night with our families. As devastating as the loss of businesses were for the community, their owners, their customers and their employees, we all got to go home.
I am keeping that in perspective.
The people that lost their homes that day were living in low income downtown housing. These are not people of extreme means (not that I want to offend or type-cast, I am just trying to make a point). As a single mother struggling to pay rent when my son was young, busting my butt waiting tables 50-60 hours a week while trying to study and still keep us fed, I have been there. My thoughts and nightmares since that fire have been exactly that – what the hell would I have done back then if suddenly my home and everything I owned was gone. In a blink of an eye, within hours. Just gone. What would I have done? This is where these families are today. Do they have insurance? Beats me, I know that in the days when I had to choose between rent and food for my kid, insurance was the farthest thing from my mind so I will assume many don’t based on my own experiences. As business people – we should and if we don’t well… we deal with that business choice. These families? Even if they DO have content insurance that does not and will not find them a new home in a housing market that is already overburdened with a demand for low income affordable housing. They don’t get to go home and think about how to rebuild their business, they don’t have a home to go to at all and they probably won’t for a long while.
So now what?
I wish I could tell you that I knew. I don’t. I wish I could tell you that I am actively involved in the organizations that are in the position to make those decisions but I am not. Perhaps I should be and perhaps I will be but until this tragedy – until I stood witness to the devastation that could have destroyed my family’s future if it happened 20 years ago to me when I was in the same position as they were Saturday before their lives changed, I never even thought of it. I was too busy building my life, my family and my business. Focusing on me, me, me. How many of us do that – and when tragedy hits, throw a few bills to alleviate our guilt and then move on? That’s me, in a nutshell.
What can I do to help these families in the long term? I have no freakin clue. None. I am not here with the answers at all. But as I always say, when you have a question, ask, if I don’t know I will find out. And that is exactly what I plan to do. Find out how I can help. Not just today, not just this week until the next story comes along but for the long run. When I know, I will let you know and maybe if you are willing, we can do it together.
~ Michelle Renee Budiwski
Photo credits: Michelle Budiwski, Real Westman
Video Credits: Michelle Budiwski, Real Westman