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Badger native rebuilding a life in Fort McMurray

FORT MCMURRAY, ALTA- Confused and emotionally torn, one of the final items Connie Howell claimed before fleeing her smoke-filled Fort McMurray home on May 3, 2016, was a Pittsburg Penguins jersey.

One year later, Howell and her jersey are back in Fort Mac.

“When I looked I saw my Pittsburg Penguins jersey and I jumped the bed and I grabbed it,” said Howell. “I said ‘you made it through one disaster, you’re going to make it through this.”

The jersey, purchased in 1988, is a symbol of victory to Howell. Not only because the Penguins won the Stanley Cup Champions last year, but for her own personal victory.

“I might have lost my home and lost everything,” said Howell. “I said ‘I’d just like for the Penguins to win the cup’ and they did.”

Howell first discussed her flight from the wildfires with the Advertiser on May 6, 2016. You can read about it here:

At the time Howell was living in a church, two duffle bags containing what remained of her worldly possessions. Trying to cope with the devastation she witnessed, and overwhelmed.

Things have, and are, changing for Howell. In the grip of her despair, Howell feared Fort McMurray would never be rebuilt. Homeless and unemployed, Howell recalls desolation everywhere she looked, But the rebuilding has begun, of homes and lives alike.

“I was off (work) from the end of June up until March 20,” Howell told the Advertiser. “After all the resume’s and applications I finally, finally got a job.”

Recalling the ordeal evokes raw emotion from Howell. Like the scars on the Fort McMurray landscape, the healing process has begun for her, but it is not yet complete.

“It was a hard year, the hardest year of my life,” said Howell. “

Her daughter, grandson and son in law lived with her at the time of the wildfires. They have told her they will never return to live in the Abasand community of Fort McMurray. Howell herself has no desire to move back to her old neighborhood, the emotion is too much.

She says she is content in Gregoire, close to, but also just far enough from her former home.

“Not being able to sleep, and every day thinking about something else you lost,” said Howell when asked about a return to her former neighborhood. “It’s hard. A lot of people are still having a hard time living here, but I mean, you’ve got to pick up the pieces and go on.”

Another piece of healing will come soon in the form of a granddaughter, who is expected in about two weeks.

“My daughters and my grandchildren are the things that got me through the last year,” she added. “It’s been the hardest year of my life and (May 3) will be a year and I don’t want to remember just forget what ruined my life.”
That type of resolve has coined a phrase used by Howell and the many others whose lives were affected by the events of last year’s fire – “Alberta strong”.

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