Help for the uninsured and under-insured

As residents of Fort McMurray returned to the city after last year’s evacuation and registered with the Canadian Red Cross, over 300 households that experienced a total loss identified that they had no insurance. There are many more households who have discovered that they were under-insured. Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) is one of the groups helping families in this terrible situation as part of NSUUR: Non-Governmental Organizations Supporting Uninsured and Under-insured Recovery. Ross Penner is the Director of Canadian Operations with MDS and he was our guest on the May 2nd edition of IMPACT heard on 91.1 The Bridge.

“Mennonite Disaster Service has been responding to disasters in Canada and the U.S. for over 50 years,” he said. “With a disaster of this size, we just know ahead of time that there will be people who will fall through the cracks and won’t have the means to recover.”

The Fort McMurray disaster, the costliest in Canadian history, is unparalleled in several ways.

“It’s really rare to have a whole city evacuate and that ending up being a month,” said Penner. “That’s massive in terms of the resources, the people resources, the energy that it takes, not only to get the people out safely, then to ensure the security of the city in that time, then figuring out how to have people re-enter.”

With a network of volunteers, skilled and unskilled, MDS is providing hope to families who found themselves in the situation of having lost everything but not having the insurance coverage in place or the financial resources to facilitate a rebuild.

“Our goal was to figure out how we can work cooperatively so we can get people back into their homes as soon as possible.”

Providing help to uninsured and under-insured families is a two-stage process, according to Penner. It starts with an intake process to provide a baseline understanding of their particular circumstance.

“We need to verify their insurance situation,” he said. “We need to confirm that it was their primary and only residence. Also, we need to confirm that they do not have the financial means to rebuild.”

Once the intake process is complete, the file is brought to the NSUUR table to determine eligibility and what organization is the best fit to help.

“In our case, we provide the labour to build the house,” said Penner. “We are looking for clients to cover the cost of materials. We tap into a network of volunteers throughout Canada and the U.S. to do the work.”

The MDS team offers three different house plans which their volunteers have built time and time again. The recipient is able to participate in a variety of decisions throughout the process, like choices related to shingles, siding, flooring, etc. Sometimes, making simple decisions can be overwhelming.

“The trauma of going through that can be huge,” he said. “The number of decisions you’ve had to make in this last year; it has the effect of wearing a person down.”

The work is incredibly rewarding, supported by the fact that volunteers devote countless hours away from their home communities providing help and hope.

“As we come alongside these people, it’s typical to get a response of: ‘I can’t believe that there are people like you in the world’,” said Penner. “That was so powerful to hear from this woman who didn’t know if she would ever have a home again.”

Having responded to many disasters, large and small, over the years, Penner is very mindful of what residents are going through.

“One of the things we’ve learned in disaster recovery is that it’s exactly one year later when people are usually at their lowest point in the recovery process, particularly those who don’t have the means to recover,” he shared. “Anniversary dates can be dates that raise all kinds of emotions, especially an event that had such a destructive impact.”

The NSUUR team and the volunteers with MDS are still accepting applications from families that were uninsured or under-insured that need help. Penner suggests that the easiest way to reach out is to call the Pulse line at 780-743-7000.

“All you have to say is that I lost my home in the fire and we don’t have insurance,” he said. “They will hook you up with the right people.”

Penner and his MDS team of volunteers plan to be in Fort McMurray for the 2017 and 2018 construction seasons. Their time in the community beyond that will be determined down the road. Their volunteers are eager to lend a helping hand.

“When I get muddled in the administrative part of my job, the thing that recharges me is going on a project and seeing our volunteers,” he said. “They are truly amazing people.”

The United Way of Fort McMurray is pleased to support NSUUR and their work in helping Fort McMurray families trying to recover from devastating loss by providing a base of operations and planning in The Redpoll Centre.


Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online ( and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.