Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
MELITA, Man. — The media doesn’t come to Melita often. Never for the good things, anyway, mayor Bill Holden says with a shrug: not for the community spirit, or the beautiful arena, or the jaunty banana statue that spreads its arms at the town’s southern edge. Only for floods, of which the town has had many, or tragedies, which are few.
The media are here now, with their notebooks and cameras. They are outside the school. They are outside a church. They are outside the town office, where Holden is doing what he can to answer their questions, careful not to wander over the line that divides what is bearing witness to a very public loss, and what is intrusive.
It’s been about 40 hours since the tragedy on Friday night. Forty hours since a tornado, rated EF2 on a six-point severity scale, reached down about 60 kilometres north of Melita, along Highway 83, which links the town to the Trans-Canada Highway, chewing up a farm and tossing hydro poles to the ground like matchsticks.
And it’s been 40 hours since two teens from Melita, 18-year-old couple Shayna Barnesky and Carter Tilbury, were killed when their vehicle was seized by the winds and hurled nearly a kilometre through a field. Another man, from Sioux Valley Dakota First Nation, was seriously injured when his vehicle was thrown into a ditch. His injuries are not considered life-threatening.
On Sunday, Tilbury and Barnesky’s families sought privacy from reporters as they coped with the loss. In the town, the streets baked in the emerging sun, largely quiet. There was no public memorial or vigil planned for the day, the mayor said, but the community was nonetheless grieving together, across social media and in private.
At the town office, Holden reflects on what it means for Melita. It’s hard to know what to say, or where to begin.
It was a freak of nature, Holden says. Just look at the photos of the twister taken by stormchasers: there is the big cloud, there is the funnel, and all around it blue sky. They know tornados in this part of Manitoba, and communities along Highway 83 have seen many. Usually, the systems that create them give more warning.
But this is so often how tragedies happen, just being in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, with no way to know how or if something could have been done different. There’s a piece of wisdom Holden goes back to, earned through experience: you can’t dwell on those questions. They won’t help you get through.
Instead, he thinks, it has to be a matter of a grieving community coming together, of friends leaning on friends and neighbours turning to neighbours. It’s already happening. Both teens came from big families, with deep roots in the area, and there’s no shortage of people who are standing ready to lend support where they can.
So it was that, on Sunday morning, all five churches that tend to the spiritual needs of the town’s 1,000 people held prayers for the victims, and for their families. So it was that on Saturday, when Barnesky’s family left a sign on their door asking to rest while they cope with the loss, visitors left home-cooked food and pizzas in the yard.
"It’s just what people do in the small towns," Holden says. "(Losing) one person can impact the whole community. Two young people like this, it definitely does. We all chip in together, for moral support."
Barnesky worked last year for the town’s Green Team; Holden plans to check in with this summer’s team to see if they need counselling. Both teens had attended Melita School; the Southwest Horizon School Division pledged to make crisis support available for students and staff across the division in the coming days.
"We mourn this unimaginable loss and heartbreak for so many," the division said, in a statement. "This tragedy resonates across all of our division’s schools because of the many well-established connections."
The physical damage of the tornado, at least, will prove easier to fix. By Saturday afternoon, a crew of 29 Manitoba Hydro workers had replaced several kilometres of downed power lines and 19 damaged poles; the only way now to tell which had been ripped down is that the new poles are ringed with fresh dirt, and tinged green in the wood.
Yet there are still signs of the atmospheric violence wreaked there, and the strange way its power was both chaotic and surgical. In Giovanni Colangelo’s farmyard, two grain bins lay crumpled together on the ground, surrounded by fragments of twisted metal and splinters of wood; nearby, several others still stand, looking almost untouched.
At the heart of the property is an old brick farmhouse. Before the tornado, one area resident noted, you could barely see it from the road, hidden as it was by a row of dense trees. Now, those trees lie ravaged and heaped on the south side of the property, while the house sits in full view of drivers who slow down to peer at the scene.
In the field to the east, just across where the tornado crossed Hwy 83 and seized the victims’ vehicles, mounds of debris sit where they had fallen or where clean-up crews had hauled them. All along the tornado’s path, the field is marred by deep gouges caused by flying shrapnel, as if giant claws had dragged across the earth.
But those scars will heal, and heal relatively quickly. The loss suffered in Melita will not.
It has been a difficult year for the region. Recent days have seen a COVID-19 outbreak surge in and around nearby Brandon. About 90 kilometres north of where the tornado struck, the Hutterite community of Decker is mourning the death of one of its members, killed Thursday night when the vehicle he was driving was T-boned on Hwy 1.
And in Melita and the surrounding Municipality of Two Borders region, the days ahead will be hard. But at least they know how to come together. They’ve done it many times to get through the floods, Holden says, although that can’t compare to the shock of this trauma, of losing two youth flush with the brightness of lives still unfolding.
"This is a different story," Holden says, quietly. "It’s going to take the community awhile."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, August 10, 2020 at 8:22 AM CDT: Corrects typo
2:12 PM: Corrects that the Enhanced Fujita scale has six categories (from zero to five).
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