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Woman of the Week: Erin O’Neill

It’s been about five months since the city of Fort McMurray was consumed by flame and smoke.  On May 3, over 80,000 people were forced to flee their homes. Television newscasts showed the wildfire quite literally jumping roads, inching closer and closer to the residential parts of the wooded region in Alberta. Luckily, there were no deaths.

Fort McMurray seems to be slowly healing, but there are still some households that are inhabitable. But, the recovery plan — which focuses on building the community back up — is in good hands.

Erin O’Neill was in Red Deer when she heard about the fire, accepting her new role as president elect of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute. She couldn’t go home and couldn’t get any information. “I was following twitter. I watched the news like everyone else,” she said. “I remember going to sleep thinking I would wake up and not have anything.”

Then she got a phone call on the Saturday afternoon asking her to come back to Fort McMurray.  She jumped on a city bus from Edmonton into the city. “I had no idea where I was staying, didn’t know what my job was. I got there and they said ‘you are going to be the planning chief of re-entry’.”

Her official position, Chief of Planning for the Regional Emergency Operations Center, meant she was in charge of all re-entry procedures — creating a Recovery Task Force, getting critical businesses like pharmacies and grocery stores up and running, and eventually helping people back into their homes.

“You know when you go on vacation? You turn out your lights and gas. We did everything for the whole city and then had to turn it back on again,” she said.  Then, the city had to restock all of their merchandise and get businesses running again, a difficult feat considering smoke had gotten into everything.

O’Neill showed up at 4:30 in the morning on June 1, the first day of re-entry, expecting everything to go wrong. But, according to her, it was almost anti-climactic.

“It was the smoothest day,” she said. “I was like, ‘this is it?’

When speaking with O’Neill over the phone, it was obvious why she was chosen for this important role. She speaks with authority and sincerity — and genuinely cares for her community.  She also happens to be incredibly kind-hearted and humble about her role in the successful re-entry of Fort McMurray.

O’Neill went to school with the intent of becoming a teacher, but in her third year of university she decided it just wasn’t for her. Instead, she went into planning and development. “I think it’s that you can see a piece of land and see it develop and help the people,” she said. “You are protecting the public interest and then you are making a difference. You can see that end result.”

After working in Ottawa processing standard permits, she made the bold decision to move to Fort McMurray. This was nine years ago.

Before she was appointed her emergency chief of planning role, O’Neill was Manager of Land Acquisition and Issues Management, or rather the person who manages land use and real estate interests for Fort McMurray, acting as broker between developers and the province. Now that most of the city’s residents are back in their homes, O’Neill is excited to expand her role, transitioning to handle three sections of the recovery plan following the fire — rebuild, mitigate, and the economy. Essentially, she is creating a legacy for the city, figuring out how to move forward after such a debilitating natural disaster.

It’s quite the portfolio, but it’s obvious O’Neill is more than capable.