Their oversized goblets wobbling a little, three young girls make a Christmas toast their hostess — Carol Powell.
Emily — 7, Katie — 9, and Beth — 10 are thrilled to be able to call the flamboyant 40-something French Immersion teacher their friend.
It’s easy to discern why. Powell, bilingual, single and independent, stands out against the backdrop of minivan moms that dominate their world. Visits to Powell’s house on Baird Place are always interesting — especially at Christmas when her house is decorated with treasures Powell gathers during her travels all over Europe and the United States.
On the evening of Dec. 22, the girls are being entertained in style, with colourful fancy drinks (non-alcoholic, of course), and one of their favourite dishes — grilled cheese sandwiches. Powell will soon be leaving St. John’s to spend the Christmas holidays with her family and lifetime friends in her hometown, Bay Roberts.
This year, the highlights of the Baird Place visit are: a “bird tree” (decorated entirely with ornaments depicting flying creatures); a reindeer sporting a tutu (Dancer); and the huge water-filled canyon where Powell’s basement used to be. After admiring the meticulous decorating upstairs, the girls couldn’t resist picking their way between mousetraps on the basement stairs off the kitchen to a landing where, under Powell’s careful supervision, they can get a good view of this new curiosity under Powell’s house.
“Kinda like Venice!” says Powell, laughing, her voice booming over the roaring extractor fan that sucks out the air, minimizing the oily smell that drifts upward into the house, “Or ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ as you choose!”
Powell’s new basement reservoir looks relatively tame today — perhaps half full of water. But it ramped up her anxiety during hurricane Igor. The 200 millimetres of driving rain that accompanied the Sept. 21 storm caused the water to rise dramatically, and because the water is contaminated, it can’t be just pumped downhill. It must be contained in a tanker truck and hauled away for treatment.
“Igor was a big concern … the hole under the house just kept filling up and filling up and I think they took out 12 truckloads of water … just to maintain the water level to probably like a foot or so beneath the (basement) floor of my house.”
Powell told me the saga of her vanishing basement earlier on the day of the girls’ dinner party, as she frantically wrapped gifts and made preparations for her young guests. It began, like many other troubles, with a phone call. Late in July this summer, her Baird Place neighbour tracked down Powell in Bay Roberts.
“I just got a phone call from my neighbour one day saying that he had an oil spill … not a big deal, a couple of hundred gallons. People have been hired to clean it up and if there is any damage done to your property, obviously it will be taken care of.”
A couple of days later when Powell returned to St. John’s, however, it was beginning to look like a big deal.
“I come in and, yeah, all the trucks are there and I said, ‘Oh my God.’ … Three or four days later, one of the engineers was here and he said, ‘We’re gonna have to dig test pits, to make sure, in your backyard. …’ Then, of course, they found oil in the test pits. So they said, ‘We’re going to have to dig under your house.’ So I said, ‘OK, boys, dig under the house. Do what you have to do.’”
Powell had to leave again for a planned trip to the United States, so she tossed her house keys to the cleanup contractor and went on her way. But when she checked in again, the news was not good.
“I called and they told me, yes, they had found oil under the house and your tenants have to move out.”
Powell’s tenants, one of whom has been with her for five years, were relocated, at the insurance company’s expense, to an apartment building. Although not bound by a lease, they continue to pay their rent to Powell and still intend to return to Baird Place when the work is finished. By the time Powell returned from her U.S. trip, late in August, the cleanup was in full swing.
“All of my driveway was gone … they’re driving excavators under my neighbour’s house, ah, there’s like four or five workmen there at all points in time, there’s like, flagmen getting us out of our driveways … so it just went from there. They just kept digging and digging and digging.”
As the autumn wore on, excavators continued gnawing away at the earth under Powell’s basement. The contaminated dirt was trucked away and the water that rushed in to fill the deep hole was pumped daily into waste oil tankers and carried away. Powell’s comforts and convenience were disappearing, too.
“ … Part of my basement floor had to go, then of course, the furnace had to go, you know, because of course you couldn’t dig under the furnace. … My laundry room is gone, I’ve lost all my storage (space) in my house. The whole beep-beep-beep of the backing-up trucks at quarter to seven in the morning kills me. It’s a version of hell.”
“Igor was a big concern … the hole under the house just kept filling up and filling up and I think they took out 12 truckloads of water … just to maintain the water level to probably like a foot or so beneath the (basement) floor of my house.” - Carol Powell
Powell, now skittish of oil tanks, reasoned that it was not sensible to try and save the 40-year-old chimney at the edge of her (now missing) driveway, and then have her old furnace, oil tank and piping reconnected, so she plowed the money allotted for that purpose into fitting her hot water heating system with a new electric furnace. That necessitated building a temporary “jetty” around the basement pool so the electric furnace installers would have a place to stand.
Powell was without furnace heat from mid-November to the week before Christmas. For heat, she had to rely on portable, plug-in heaters and her propane stove.
“A lot of people have said, ‘You should move,’ but … I’m a girl who loves her clothes. I have about 20 coats. … Do I take my stereo? What do you take if you are going for a month, two months, three months? Do I take 20 pairs of shoes with me or 30? Do I take my desktop or just my laptop?”
But despite all the grief, Powell speaks highly of the cleanup crew. “They’re all very nice … there’s absolutely no issue on that level, but it’s a job site. I refer to my house as a job site.”
And what a job it is. The scope of the cleanup crew’s duties includes some odd tasks.
“I have mice, now, in my attic and that’s one of their jobs — they have to go up and get those mice in the attic. I’m frightened to death of mice … I’d rather face an elephant or a lion than a mouse, … and now, of course, (the mice) have ways in.”
As the rain drives down and the wind tears at the plastic that covers the fireplace opening where the chimney once stood, the girls flip over their dinner plates and discover they each have won prizes. Emily, a giant chocolate bar; Katie, a “Grinch tree” — a tiny cedar weighed down with a red ornament; Beth scored the lip gloss.
Their irrepressible host, Carol Powell, although admitting to “a couple of meltdowns,” remains stoic and positive.
“It’s not the worry so much, it’s just a pain in the ass, you know? … It’s a long haul. To clean up an oil spill is a long haul. At the end of the day, I will have … a product that should be better. Like, structurally it should be better. Christmas is going ahead, I still have all of my (Christmas) trees …
“I had my cocktail party, without rubber boots and safety glasses!