Oil spill costs woman hundreds of thousands in damage repair

Thousands of people were forced from their homes when the Coldwater River rose to unprecedented levels and spilled its banks on Nov. 15, 2021. 

When flood waters receded, some residents were fortunate to return to undamaged homes, others had to undertake extensive repair and restoration work, and still others found that their homes had been swept away or destroyed. 

However, in Rochelle Rupert’s case, there is a limbo of being caught in between. Unable to live in her home as it is, unable to repair it, and unable to tear it down, Rupert has been caught between insurance and Disaster Financial Assistance (DFA), receiving no help from either. 

Her story begins, like many others, being awoken by emergency personnel at 3:30AM on the morning of Nov. 15 at her home on Hamilton Ave. near Merritt Secondary School.

“They didn’t come until about 3:30 in the morning to tell us to leave, and that was a pretty confusing experience because I didn’t really understand why the Coldwater was going to flood,” said Rupert.  

“I have two cats, and I had two chickens at the time but they both died in the flood because I couldn’t do anything with them at 3:30 in the morning. I’m pretty surprised that we didn’t have more warning than that. By 4:00 or 4:15 in the morning, the water was rushing onto the streets. I literally just had time to get both my cats and one suitcase of clothes before I decided to leave.”

Confused, exhausted, and unsure where to evacuate or how long she would be out of her home, Rupert went first to a friend’s house where she spent the remainder of the night. The next day she went to another friend’s house where she had to stay in the garage as her friend was allergic to cats. From there she went to a colleague’s house where she stayed for three days before going to Kamloops and staying in the basement of a former colleague for two weeks. When she was able to return to Merritt she moved into a basement before trying to stay in a borrowed RV trailer outside her home. Because there were a number of fans and dehumidifiers placing a significant strain on the power supply, she was unable to plug the trailer in, and the temperature dipped down to more than -20°C.

Using a diesel generator, which required fuel every six hours, to run two space heaters which kept her from “freezing to death”, before returning to a friend’s basement. Unfortunately, that house is now going up for sale and once again, Rupert will be looking for a place to stay. 

In the meantime, Rupert, who still had water flowing through her house and yard on Nov. 16 when waters elsewhere began to recede, attempted to make an insurance claim. This was promptly denied as Rupert did not have overland flood insurance. 
The situation was only to get worse. 

“My biggest problem is that I don’t just have flood damage,” said Rupert. 

“In the 80s or 90s, someone converted the home from an oil furnace to a gas furnace, and they buried the oil tank, still full of oil, in the crawl space. When the flood waters came in they filled the tank with water and pushed all of the remaining oil out of the tank, and then the oil floated on top of the water… My house didn’t flood from the outside, it flooded from the basement filling up so high. So, the basement completely filled with water, the oil was floating on top of the water, and it got pushed through into the house.”

However, Rupert had no idea this was the case when she first returned home, and she had already spent $10,000 gutting the interior of her house to fix what she assumed was just water damage. 

Half of Rupert’s home sits on a dirt crawlspace and the other half sits on a cement basement. In the flood, river mud filled the basement and also contaminated the dirt of the crawl space, which began to mold within days. To clear this mess, Rupert brought in a hydrovac truck.

“When we were cleaning up, taking out chunks of wood pieces and rock that got stuck in the hydrovac that was sucking up the mud, as we were doing this process, one of my friends said you know there’s an old oil tank back here, right?”

Rupert had lived in the house for three years but had no idea that the oil tank was buried in her crawlspace. This had never been disclosed to her, and despite extensive plumbing work performed by the former owners in the basement, it is unclear whether they were aware of the issue either. Not even a pre-purchase home inspection gave Rupert any indication of the existence of the tank.

“And then everything clicked,” said Rupert. 

“The smell, what I was seeing on the floors, I couldn’t understand. A few days after the flood I returned home to get some belongings, before they really cracked down, and when you opened the door it just smacked you in the face, this horrible smell.” 

Friends had been at Rupert’s house before she returned and began the process of pumping the water out, realizing after the tank was found that what they had witnessed in the strange colouration of the water and the odour was actually an oil slick. 
“We pumped all that water and mud onto my backyard,” said Rupert. 

Now, her home and entire lot have been contaminated, being considered not just a flood zone but an environmental hazard. Quotes from environmental remediation companies have been between $350,000 to $500,000, with one sending an employee from Kamloops. 

“When she saw the house she pretty much told me it was a teardown,” said Rupert. 
“Everything I own smells like oil, there’s oil in the wood of the floors, oil in the wood of the walls. The whole house reeks of oil, you can smell it from outside even before you enter.” 

Although Rupert’s home is entirely unliveable, she was inexplicably removed from the evacuation order that otherwise includes the rest of her neighbourhood. Her home was initially yellow tagged, and her neighbour sent her a picture proving such, however, by the time Rupert was next at her house, the tag had disappeared. This was in December, and it was only a few weeks ago she was able to have the City return her to address to the evacuation order.

In the meantime, Rupert was told her Red Cross supports were ending on Feb. 15, and despite filling out all of the appropriate paperwork and knowing that supports have now been extended to March 31, she has not heard back. The owner of the home where she is billeting has not been paid since Feb. 15. 

Although Samaritan’s Purse wouldn’t enter her home due to the overwhelming smell of oil, a project manager called Emergency Management BC to inquire about DFA on her behalf. At that time, she was informed DFA wouldn’t cover any damage related to the oil. 

“I don’t understand how they’re going to differentiate what was damaged from water vs. oil because the water was carrying the oil around the house, and the only reason the house was a total loss is because of the flood, and because the tank was flooded, otherwise this wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have known about the tank still,” said Rupert. 
At the beginning of Dec., Rupert went ahead and applied for DFA anyway, but has yet to hear back. 

Still, even if DFA paid out the maximum 80% of the cost of damages, Rupert’s house was assessed at $243,000, which would amount to a pay out of $194,400. This would not even cover the $226,000 Rupert still owes on her mortgage. And even if she could come up with the remaining $31,600 the hundreds of thousands of dollars in remediation work would still need to be done before she could even begin to build a new home or sell the lot. 

Rupert also attempted to file a new insurance claim for oil damage rather than flooding, but more than a month later, her insurance company hasn’t given her an answer. 

“DFA wants to deny oil, and the insurance company wants to deny the flood and I don’t know about the oil, but even if both of them would just cooperate and help me with this, I still don’t know if I could make this happen without several hundred thousand coming out of my own pocket,” said Rupert, who initially tried to be positive and grateful that her home didn’t float down the river.

“All I can think now is that I wish it had. It would have been easier to deal with. Dealing with an environmental contamination like this is just going to be years of headache and money.” 

Perhaps most heartbreaking is that this home represented a fresh start for Rupert. When her mother passed five years ago, everything was left to her stepfather except an RRSP which was divided between Rupert and her sisters. 

From this Rupert received $60,000. Immediately following her mother’s death, Rupert’s boyfriend at the time convinced her to purchase a house with him. Three months after receiving $40,000 from Rupert, he kicked her out of the house and informed her that she was not on the title and would not be receiving a dime of her money back.

Rupert took the remaining $20,000 and moved from Ottawa, Ontario to Merritt, where she put a downpayment on her home on Hamilton Ave. A home that will never be lived in again. 

Without a lot of assistance from somewhere, Rupert will remain stuck in a nearly unsolvable problem for years. At this point, she has considered giving up on everything she has worked for and walking away from the house, defaulting on her mortgage in the process. 

“I don’t know what else to do, without half a million dollars I can’t do anything,” said Rupert.   

“My credit will go down to nothing, and the way that the market is right now without being able to sell a home and have equity back and have a downpayment for a new home, there’s no way that I’ll be able to re enter the market again.”

Although she is reluctant to return into renting after being a homeowner, availability is almost nonexistent anyway. Rupert has only seen two pet friendly rentals that would accept her and her cats since the flooding, one was $1,300/month and the other $3,000/month. Both were rented within days. 

“I’m wondering where the governments are in all of this, where is the help coming for the City of Merritt?” Rupert questioned. 

“I just want to go home.”