Family finds community and support at Mount Royal University

Despite knowing there was a wildfire nearby, Sandeep Kondaveeti and his wife were rushed when Fort McMurray officials demanded city residents flee for safety on May 3.

“I could see smoke from our home. When I came out[side] . . . ashes were falling,” Nishu Reddy said. “When I was evacuating, I was told that the fire was 14 kilometres away from our place.”

Reddy, her husband Sandeep Kondaveeti and their son Virat Kondaveeti started a long journey from Fort McMurray on May 3 after the blaze forced a city-wide evacuation. They finally arrived in Calgary, settling into their temporary home May 8 at Mount Royal University (MRU), where they were interviewed May 9, less than a week after fleeing their hometown.

The family, originally from India, has called Fort McMurray home for the past four years, although Kondaveeti has been in Canada for 10 years, having completed his graduate studies as a process chemical engineer in Edmonton prior to moving north.

“She was alone at home with the baby, and, we didn’t have any preparedness alert from anyone,” Kondaveeti said of the chaotic evacuation.

“All we heard was it was out of control,” Kondaveeti said. Not knowing where the fire was headed, where residents were supposed to go, or how the blaze would affect their family was troubling.

Reddy and 15-month-old Virat waited 90 minutes at a gas station to refuel before returning home with just enough time to pack a few belongings. Passports, birth certificates and a few valuables were retrieved, but everything else was left behind.

“There was so much confusion,” Kondaveeti said, “but a lot of stuff, our memories, are just left there behind.”

Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) has partnered with multiple locations across Calgary, including Mount Royal University, to provide temporary accommodation to those fleeing the wildfires of Fort McMurray, including Sandeep Kondaveeti, his wife Nashu Reddy and 15-month-old Virat. Photo by Deanna TuckerAlong with photos and belongings, Reddy preserved her son’s baby clothes — hoping to give them to Virat when he is an adult — but that will no longer be an option for her.

At the time of evacuation, Highway 63 southbound was closed, leaving Kondaveeti stranded at his workplace south of Fort McMurray. As soon as people were given the okay to travel south, Reddy and her son made the 60-km journey to Kondaveeti’s worksite, a mother and son among the more than 88,000 people who fled Fort McMurray.

“She did a great job driving, going through that fire on both sides, with the baby,” Kondaveeti said.

The drive through what seemed like a tunnel of fire was drawn out to four hours because of lineups. People were waiting at two gas stations, creating a line of vehicles that backed on to the highway, blocking other drivers from passing through. Reddy waited patiently with her son who was surprisingly content in his car seat.

The family made their way to Edmonton and stayed with friends for a few nights, eventually arriving in Calgary on May 7. They have been welcomed by MRU and are currently staying in temporary resident housing.

MRU is housing 475 evacuees at its east and west residences, while also providing three meals a day at The Table, one of the food vendors on campus.

Although Kondaveeti’s family was given a few accommodation options, he said finding something appropriate for their toddler and connecting with others from the traumatic experience was important.

“We’re trying to spend as much time as we can with people who share the same feelings,” he said.

Bryan Weismiller, MRU’s media relations communication officer, said via email, “It’s been heartening to see the resilience shown by Fort McMurray residents staying on campus.”

The residence staff and emergency operations team are working hard to ensure their guests feel as comfortable as possible during this difficult time, said Weismiller, adding the recreation facilities and the library are open for their use as well.

Sandeep Kondaveeti, his wife Nashu Reddy and 15-month-old Virat Kondaveeti spend time together as a family at Mount Royal University. The young family is staying in residence while looking for a possible short-term rental in Calgary. Photo by Deanna Tucker“Yeah, we know our home is gone,” said an emotional Kondaveeti. “It’s all gone. Our memories are all gone.”

Kondaveeti isn’t sure what is next for his family. While he waits to hear if his company (he declined to name the company) needs an emergency response team, he is looking for affordable short-term rental housing for his family while he works at the company’s Calgary location.

“It will be interesting to see how different parties come together to rebuild the community,” Kondaveeti said. He is thankful for coming from such a tight-knit community like Fort McMurray, evidenced by evacuees supporting each other at welcome centres like MRU.

Kondaveeti and his family have chosen to continue looking at the situation positively rather than focus on the negative things that have happened to them.

“It’s very humbling for us,” he said of fellow Canadians supporting the evacuees through this terrible ordeal.

“I’m fortunate that way. A lot of people must be struggling, with much more tougher stories. We have good support, but we are hoping everyone has a good level of support.”

According to the City of Calgary website, reception centres at Mount Royal University, Southern Alberta Institute Technology (SAIT) and Ambrose University College have reached capacity, though the University of Calgary is still open to accommodate evacuees.

For more information regarding welcome centres, go to www.calgary.ca.

dtucker@cjournal.ca

The editor responsbile for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca