It’s a rainy, windy day as Heather Strickey looks out at what used to be her home through a chain-link fence.
The gardens are gone, the house is gone. It’s just gone.
Two basketball nets remain in front of a pile of earth, where the sinkhole used to be, now starting to gather foliage.
Coming back here is hard for her. She says she feels sick to her stomach looking at the property.
“This was our home, now it looks like a ghost town,” she said. “This was once so vibrant. We had some great memories here together — and the worst memory, too.”
Strickey and her family lost their home suddenly on Sept. 3, 2017, when a sinkhole unexpectedly appeared underneath the foundation in the middle of the night.
They had no idea what was going on at first, hearing loud bangs. They thought they were being robbed or something. They had no idea they’d be dealing with the ramifications of that night to this very day.
The family made it out OK, but the structure had to be destroyed.
On Jan. 2, 2018, the house was torn down by an excavator.
Strickey said it was gut-wrenching to watch.
“It was one thing to see it still standing and thinking maybe you’d wake up one day and somehow find your way back there,” she said.
“When I saw it being ripped down, I knew there was no going back. That part of our life is over,” she said.
“Every time I drive by the vacant lot, I get emotional.”
That initial trauma is over, but that fear has morphed into frustration and anger, as Strickey’s insurance provider, Wawanesa, is refusing to cover the loss.
But the family isn’t backing down without a fight.
STILL PAYING MORTGAGE
The family was out of the house with only the clothes on their back the day of the incident, so immediate needs had to be dealt with first.
“We spent 10 months almost feeling like nomads, going from one place to another. We’d stay at a friend’s home or cottage for awhile, then move to another,” she said. “Our girls stayed on (King’s-Edgehill School) campus until we rented a house in town.”
Throughout it all, they’ve been paying a mortgage on a home they couldn’t live in.
They’ve worked out a deal with their mortgage provider, Scotiabank, wherein they’ll have to continue to make payments for another five years, before moving on from the property.
It’s tough, but better than the alternative.
“It’s like there’s a hole, and we drop $1,500 a month in that for five more years,” she said. “Our credit rating has taken a major hit as well. We can’t get a credit card, let alone a new house.”
Much of their furniture and other possessions were spread out over four storage lockers during the moves.
Strickey and her husband, Chris, are now living a stone’s throw from where they work on the King’s-Edgehill School campus, in a Victorian home that dates back to the 1800s.
Strickey is the director of advancement and alumni relations at the Windsor-based private school and her husband is the director of admissions.
While in the home, the Strickeys are also house parents for five students who live in the same building, and two of their children, who also attend the school, live upstairs.
It’s not their own home, but Strickey said they do feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity.
Ironically, Strickey and her husband had lived in this building before, shortly after they got married, so it’s something of a bizarre homecoming.
They had lots of help from the school, their parents, friends and neighbours to get resettled into their new home last July, which also received a fresh coat of paint and some other upgrades.
“(King’s-Edgehill School) was very enthusiastic to have us back on campus,” she said.
The Strickey home was insured through Wawanesa, but the company has refused the claim, saying the scope of the incident was beyond their coverage, Strickey said.
She said they had no reason to believe they could ever be declined in a situation like this.
“In fact, we were over-insured,” she said. “We had coverage (worth) over $900,000 for our home.”
“We actually wondered why we were paying so much in premiums because our house was only evaluated at $531,000,” she said. “But we kept paying them because we were told ‘if anything ever happens, we’ll be happy with that coverage.’”
Strickey said they met with an insurance representative 72 days after the incident in November.
She described the news they received as a sandwich, with two good news buns and bad news at the core.
The two pieces of good news were that the company would cover the security costs of protecting the property after the municipality moved on. And that they sent in a company to go inside and retrieve what they could, covering the remainder of their lost possessions.
But the bad news was that their claim on the home was being denied.
That was hard to stomach.
“Wawanesa was not at fault for what happened to our house, but we’ve paid fees to (the company) so that if something ever happened to our house they would take care of us,” she said. “Then they could go after who’s at fault, whoever that may be if they wanted.”
But that didn’t happen.
To make matter’s worse, Strickey’s mother-in-law, Linda, passed away from brain cancer shortly after they received the news. Feelings of grief, sadness and frustration compounded.
“I was in denial when I heard our claim was denied, I really was,” she said. “You just assume the coverage you’re paying for in good faith will take care of you.”
Strickey said that the insurance company described the event as “movement of earth,” which they wouldn’t cover under their policy.
She says the home should have been covered under collapse, which was part of their plan.
“I truly believe that they saw our situation as a problem, that if they said ‘yes’ to us and another sinkhole opened up on another property, then they would have to say ‘yes’ to any sinkhole in Nova Scotia, that it would set a precedent,” she said. “That’s what they and all of the other insurance companies were really worried about.”
DETERMINED TO FIGHT
The Strickeys are planning to take the company to court, to get the decision reversed. That comes with its own costs with legal fees, but she says they’re determined to fight.
“We’re just hoping Wawanesa will decide to help us before it comes to that, but if not, we’ll push on and tell our story, and I think it’s a compelling one,” she said. “Anyone who owns a house and has insurance… it’s something that will touch a lot of people.”
Strickey said people in the community have attempted to establish GoFundMe campaigns and other fundraisers to help them through this, but she said they’re not comfortable accepting donations at this point because she feels that what they should be getting is compensation from their insurance provider.
The Valley Journal-Advertiser reached out to Wawanesa Insurance for comment.
David Hultin, a spokesperson for the company said, “we do not publicly comment on the specifics of any claim, nor do we discuss matters currently under dispute, especially when a policyholder has chosen to be represented by legal counsel. Therefore, we cannot comment with regards to the claim from the homeowner.”
Despite everything, Strickey is thankful for the support her family has received, from neighbours, family, friends, her colleagues and beyond.
“People I don’t even know have been coming up to me and saying ‘keep going Heather, don’t let them get you down.’ We’re OK, because we’re happy and safe, so that makes it easier,” she said.
“We’re still here, we just lost our stability and want it back.”