The water that took over a 54-year-old Juneau woman’s home after an apartment fire brought back a memory as it simultaneously took most of her life’s possessions.
“Three years ago I came to Juneau with only a plastic grocery bag to my name. I came here broke, drunk, but I rebuilt my life. Now I’m back to nothing again — I’m down to a grocery bag again,” said Hazel LeCount, a tenant of the Channel View Apartments.
A fire in a fifth floor unit inside the Gastineau Avenue complex Sunday evening left eight units damaged by smoke and water (that number was previously seven until mold issues were considered and another family vacated). Investigators from the Fire Marshal’s office say the cause of the fire is still unknown and the incident is under investigation.
LeCount’s apartment, where her 14-year-old nephew also lives, is on the first floor. Despite being four floors from where the fire started, a funnel of water and a collection of smoke have made the unit unlivable.
“It’s disgusting, it reeks,” LeCount said, describing the place she now only visits to pick up clothes that can be salvaged. Clothes are the only items for some tenants that suffered reversible damage, but for LeCount, if her clothes continue to smell of smoke she’ll have to get rid of them because of a chronic lung disease.
Thursday, LeCount used a storage container to get as much as she can out of there by Sunday. After Sunday, no one knows how long it will be before LeCount and the other displaced families will sleep in their own beds.
For now, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Southeast Alaska personnel are working around the clock to make sure each family has a place to stay, said housing manager Tamme Martini. The nonprofit group owns the apartment complex, which is also a limited-income housing option in downtown Juneau.
Martini said she talks one-on-one with each displaced tenant to find out what they’re missing, what they need, and tries to find a solution for them. That task is only made more difficult since most of them, like LeCount, are having to start completely over.
“If people would just imagine they lost everything in a fire, and think what that must be like — that’s what they need,” Martini said.
Out of the eight families displaced only one has been able to return home, but ceiling damage could displace him again later. The others are living in hotels or hostels around town until a construction crew can begin “tearing apart and putting back together” the affected units, Martini said.
St. Vincent’s is footing the bill for those hotel bills and Martini admits the nonprofit is “a little desperate” in their effort to help those in despair. Each hotel room will run them approximately $1,000 a month, which isn’t a rate they can maintain for long.
Then there are other needs that can be hard to meet for so many people on a daily basis. Living in a hotel for some means living without a refrigerator or even a microwave, Martini said. That doesn’t bode well for people living on limited incomes who still want a hot meal at the end of the day. To remedy this in part, the American Red Cross is donating Visa cards to individuals on a case-by-case basis, Martini said.
Then there are the emotional needs of tenants. Martini said the one tenant hospitalized after the fire because of smoke inhalation still hasn’t seen her apartment — the one where the fire started. That tenant is also a mother of four young boys and is focused on reuniting with them after her hospital stay. Martini said she wants to be there when the mother returns to collect whatever can be saved in the singe-filled apartment.
“I want to walk through it with her, I don’t want her to be traumatized by what she’s going to see,” Martini said.
LeCount, who works at the Polaris House helping people with mental illnesses regain full lives, said she’s trying not to dwell too much in the hopelessness of it all. Her family photos and important personal documents are mush, but she said she’s too tired to think about it right now. Before she can do any of that, she has to go to Fred Meyer’s to find an outfit for work tomorrow.
“I’m just really trying to cope and I’m sure all the people in my building are just trying to cope,” LeCount said.
To send a monetary donation to those affected by the fire, visit www.svdpjuneau.org, click “Donate Now” and in the memo area write “Channel View Apartment victims.” Other donations of linens or common household goods can be taken to St. Vincent’s main office at 8617 Teal Street.
• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.