June 22, 2024

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Residents cry, worry after sudden order to evacuate ‘unstable’ Winnipeg apartment building

5 min read

Danny Leber’s deep voice faltered and broke into sobs as he tried to plan his next steps following an urgent evacuation order that forced him to rush home from work Thursday night and pack up his family, but with nowhere to go.

“It’s scary. I got a toddler and a family, right?” Leber said Thursday night, standing outside the five-storey Birchwood Terrace apartment building on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg where he and his girlfriend live.

“She’s crying upstairs and it’s on me as the provider of the house … to provide and be strong.”

Residents ordered to evacuate Winnipeg apartment block

About 250 people are scrambling to find new homes after the City of Winnipeg ordered an evacuation of their building Thursday night. An engineer’s inspection found Birchwood Terrace had unsafe structural conditions, including corrosion in columns of its underground parkade.

Residents of the 171-suite structure say they were told Thursday evening, without prior warning, to be gone by 8 a.m. Friday after an inspection found serious structural deterioration.

“I’m stressed out man — like, I don’t even know what to do,” Leber said after racing home from Selkirk, where he works night shifts.

“Who wants to take in two cats … a little toddler and a girlfriend, right? It’s a whole circus, and not a lot of people want to take that on. So as of 8 a.m., I don’t know if we’re going to be living in my car.”

Moving trucks are parked on grass beside an apartment building.
Trucks line the front lawn at Birchwood Terrace on Friday morning. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg issued an order Thursday night to immediately vacate the building due to unsafe conditions.

The order cites an inspection by an engineering consultant, which found serious corrosion in columns of Birchwood Terrace’s underground parkade.

That “leads us to believe that this is a pervasive condition that puts the overall stability of the structure in question,” the order said.

“The building is not safe to occupy at present,” Jason Shaw, the City of Winnipeg’s deputy chief of emergency management, said Friday morning at a news conference.

“This order was issued to prevent a potential disaster. Under the engineer’s report … the building is unstable.”

Asked if there is a fear the building could collapse, Shaw bluntly responded, “That is the fear.”

He added this is the first time in his 22 years with the city that he’s experienced a large-scale evacuation due to a potential structural collapse.

People were not told, however, they had to be out by 8 a.m., Shaw said. Rather, the city started a door-knocking process at that time to ensure residents had started gathering their things.

It takes time to move things out, and the city will start locking down the building over the next 24-36 hours, he said.

An underground parkade and support beams
Inspection work is seen inside the Birchwood Terrace parkade. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Mayor Scott Gillingham said he went to the building Friday morning and witnessed a steady stream of people carrying belongings to vehicles.

“This decision was not made lightly. My heart goes out to the residents of Birchwood Terrace,” he said. “This is an emotional and difficult time for many of them.”

He acknowledged “the disruption and uncertainty” the evacuation order has caused and said the city is committed to providing support to residents.

Shaw said the building owner and engineers had been working over several days on an inspection of the building before coming to their conclusion and contacting the city.

“That’s when we took action,” he said.

The building’s owners were told at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to alert residents about the evacuation order. A memo sent to residents by Lakewood Agencies, which manages the building on behalf of Ladco, said all leases are considered terminated effective immediately.

The five-storey building, between Assiniboine Crescent and Olive Street, was built in 1962, according to an online rental profile. There are approximately 250 residents, Shaw said at Friday’s news conference.

A reception centre to help people find temporary accommodation, resources and support has been set up by the city in the Holiday Inn just west of the apartment building.

A large apartment building is seen from the street
Birchwood Terrace, built in 1962, has 171 suites. (Google Street View)

Shaw also said city officials have gone door-to-door, advising residents of other properties in the neighbourhood that they are on an evacuation watch.

There are about 30-40 homes near Birchwood Terrace, and those residents are being told to prepare themselves to leave in case something happens to the apartment block.

The city will issue orders to Ladco about specific actions it must take to address the problems, which must be completed before the building can be occupied again, Shaw added.

There are no timelines for that process at the moment, he said.

“Our heart breaks for these individuals. This is extremely stressful.”

‘We don’t know what to do’

Birchwood Terrace resident Mala Carriere was out Thursday night when her daughter called with the sudden news that they had to leave.

“We have a lot of anxiety right now, because this was our home,” she said, holding a pet carrier containing a tropical bird, noting she also has a dog and fish.

“We’re pretty stressed. We’re on the verge of tears because we don’t know what to do.”

In the meantime, she and her younger daughter are moving in with Carriere’s older daughter, who has a two-bedroom apartment but also two kids of her own.

A friend brought in a truck to help them move as much as they could on short notice.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last or if it’s permanent. We have not been told,” she said about the order to vacate.

A woman with long black hair holds a pet carrier.
Mala Carriere holds a pet carrier containing her tropical bird as she packs up her belongings on Thursday night. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Michelle Harder, who was helping a friend move, said everyone is frustrated, upset and full of questions.

“They don’t know how much stuff to bring with them — all of their stuff, or if they have to make arrangements to come back. What if they can’t get all of their stuff?” she said, tearing up while talking.

“A lot of people don’t have family in the city. A lot of people don’t have a lot of friends maybe around. If she [Harder’s friend] didn’t have any friends here, she’d be stuck.”

The fact residents don’t know when they’ll be able to go back is a concern, she said.

“That’s just a really unsettling feeling. The last thing you want is to be … you know, kicked out and on the street, trying to figure out where to go if you don’t have family or friends.”

Structural deterioration causes evacuation of St. James apartment building

Friday was a morning of panic for people who live in a large apartment block on Portage Avenue in west Winnipeg. The company that operates the building says it was given an order by the City of Winnipeg Thursday night, saying everyone had to get out of the building immediately after an engineering inspection found severe deterioration of the structure in various locations.

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