Siblings help each other through natural disasters years apart

By Anna Burleson Forum News Service GRAND FORKS -- Curtis J. Phillips couldn't figure out why the women he saw in Wal-Mart were donating carts full of merchandise to the community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Having fled the town as an evac...

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Curtis J. Phillips (right) and Kathleen Adams share their stories of the fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta and the flood of 97 in Grand Forks, Wednesday afternoon at Adams home. Jesse Trelstad/ Forum News Service


By Anna Burleson

Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS -- Curtis J. Phillips couldn't figure out why the women he saw in Wal-Mart were donating carts full of merchandise to the community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.


Having fled the town as an evacuee days before in the wake of a massive fire, Phillips asked if they were part of a charity group or perhaps knew someone from the area, but the women said they were simply trying to help.

"It was just five moms, and I just fell to the floor and cried," he said.

Phillips was having lunch with a friend about 1:15 p.m. May 3 when the waitress said she had to leave because her house was on fire.
"We looked outside and saw the hill ablaze because we were surrounded by forest," he said.

Phillips took his 22-year-old daughter, Meaghan; wife, Diane; and the family dog and left town. Sitting on his twin sister's couch in Grand Forks on Wednesday afternoon in new jeans that were 2 inches too long, he said the only thing he grabbed before leaving were family heirlooms.
"You've just got your wallet, and I was wearing a pair of pants and this shirt here and my sandals," Phillips said. "That was it."

About 88,000 people have evacuated the town since the wildfires began to grow in early May, according to media reports.

Phillips' wife, Diane, the president of the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, stayed in Canada to continue working despite her original plan to retire in June. In the meantime, Phillips came to stay with his sister Kathleen Adams, who also has experienced a natural disaster.

During the 1997 flood, her Grand Forks townhome filled with 13 inches of water. After it was safe to return, she did so alone.

"I saw a dead mouse on the chair and I freaked out," Adams said. "I was scared. The memory of that dead mouse on the chair, I'll never get that out of my head."
Adams sent her son Daniel, who was about 14 years old at the time, to live with Phillips, while her 17-year-old son, David, stayed in the area with his grandmother in Buxton, N.D.


"When the flood came, I said Danny could come live with us for good," Phillips said, laughing.

Despite being there for each other in times of need, the siblings don't describe themselves as being very close, something they blame on distance.

"Curtis and his wife, they would help the poorest of the poor," Adams said.

"That's what you're supposed to do," Phillips replied.

Phillips moved to Fort McMurray in 1982, a town with a population of about 125,000. A sportswriter, TV personality and figure in the media, Phillips said he thought about writing a story on the evacuation but came to realize the importance of simply listening to people tell their stories.
"I went from the glory of the story to just listening," he said. "They had somebody to talk to, a familiar face, and that was really important."

Both siblings have felt compelled to give back when possible despite experiencing trauma themselves. Adams volunteered for three weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Phillips plans to do what he can for his community when he returns.

"In Grand Forks, you had time to realize what was happening," Phillips said. "For us, it was 15 minutes--boom--you're gone."

Phillips can see online via satellite photos that his home is still standing, though he is concerned about smoke and water damage. Nonetheless, he is eager to return as soon as possible, which for now he thinks will be early June.


"We will rebuild, revitalize and return," Phillips said.

Related Topics: ALBERTA
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