In High River, the wait continues for flood victims

13,000 residents remain displaced, with no idea when they’ll return


The southeast corner of High River, Alta. on Sunday, June 23, 2013. (Emily Senger/Maclean's)

There was good news Sunday for many Calgarians, who got to return to their soggy homes in flooded areas. South of Calgary, in High River, Alta., the flood situation has become a waiting game for the town’s 13,000 residents, who have no timeline as to when they might be able to return.

My parents are among those displaced and — like thousands of others — they are waiting for answers from officials who don’t have any good news to give.

In a media briefing Sunday afternoon, High River Mayor Emile Blokland told reporters that a “huge body of water” still covers much of the eastern part of the town. He estimated it to be nearly “one-mile wide” and “three miles to the north.”

That body of water provided the backdrop as Blokland spoke to media on the southeast edge of town, flanked by Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths and Brig.-Gen. Christian Juneau. The water that remains after the Highwood River ripped through town Thursday is stagnant, a breeding ground for mosquitoes that swarmed overhead. Officials suspect it is contaminated with both sewage and fuel. “I’m serious, don’t touch the water,” advised RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Jones.

While residents wait for that stagnant pool to dry up, and for the town to get essential services running, officials estimate there could be as many as 1,000 people still camped out in their High River homes, despite a mandatory evacuation order.

I grew up in High River, just 60 kilometres south of Calgary, and I know many of the kinds of people who would remain in their home, rather than heed a government-ordered evacuation. High River is Wildrose country, a provincial riding where many share the same right-of-centre values as their MLA Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Party leader who advocates for smaller government and the rights of property owners.

The mayor and Griffiths urged the residents who are still in town to get out and to do it now.

“We certainly have a couple areas of town that the residents feel like they’re safe because their particular area of town is dry, but the fact of the matter is they are hampering our recovery efforts,” said the mayor. “They don’t realize that toilet they flush comes up somewhere else because our sewer system isn’t working. They don’t realize that we’re on limited water and when they turn the tap on, they’re using a resource that we need. They don’t realize that we need to get the streets clear of debris, vehicles, mud and everything else so that you can move around the town completely.”

While streets in the west part of town are beginning to dry, the entire town remains under a mandatory evacuation. RCMP are posted at each road into town and more than 300 soldiers patrol the roads in light-armoured vehicles. No one is getting in, and anyone who gets out won’t make it back in again.

Minister Griffiths was less diplomatic than Blokland when describing those remaining, saying the residents are “being selfish and they’re being ignorant of the realities.”

RCMP are going door-to-door with military members — using locksmiths to open doors when needed — and are urging anyone they find to get out. RCMP can arrest residents, but “it’s not a path that we want to go down,” said Blokland.

While the news remains bleak in the short-term, there are stories of hope amid the devastation.

About a kilometre outside of High River, Ken and Deborah Harrison pulled debris from their fence on Sunday afternoon. The pair lives less than a kilometre from the river, but built their country home on a slight hill.

They barely escaped the rising water around noon Thursday and feared the worst, only to see a picture of their home — perched on a green island in a sea of brown river — on an aerial shot on the evening news Friday. They returned to find everything intact, aside from a pile of branches and muck on their lawn. “Build higher than you think you should,” Ken advised.

In the field adjacent to the Harrison’s home, a red Chevy truck remains marooned. It stalled out in the rising water and was pushed approximately 50 metres off the road. Around the corner, a lime-green snowmobile was lodged in the mud on the side of the road and tiny silver fish flip-flopped in a puddle where the river ran through only days before.

There is some news for my family, too, however limited. I wrote on Friday that I wasn’t certain if the family home I grew up in was even standing. I can confirm that it stands, on street caked in muck and debris. One of my younger sister’s friends, one of the residents Griffiths may lump into the “selfish and ignorant” category, has remained in town. He took pictures of our family home and sent them to my sister.

Here is it, muddy in front, but still standing.

Like all the other High River residents, it looks like it could be some time before my parents find out what’s left on the inside.


In High River, the wait continues for flood victims

  1. Harp’s F-I-L is one of those remaining, so I doubt anyone will get nailed for it even though they should be.

  2. Seriously, Emily? You are actually going to make this a left-wing vs right-wing issue? Those that choose to stay behind must be right-wing? Are you kidding? Maybe they just want to protect their life-long possessions. Maybe they don’t want their children’s baby pictures covered in river mud and sewage. Maybe they can’t afford the $50,000 bill or more to rebuild their basement. Some people aren’t as well off as a fancy pants like you. Get off your soap box and show some empathy.

    • I think sometimes commenters forget there is a real person who wrote the story they are making hurtful comments on. The real person is me. My parents’ home, and many homes of my family and friends, were damaged or destroyed in this flood. I hardly think I can be accused of not showing empathy.

      You accuse me of making this into a political issue (which I would argue I did not), while you make this into a class argument. Does my family deserve any less sympathy because they own what appears to be a nice house in the photo I posted? I think not. My baby pictures are covered in mud and sewage, just like everyone else in the town.

    • Actually, she said the entire town is right-wing. You’re the only one who’s accusing solely right wing people of being selfish. Kind of interesting what that says. Hamlet comes to mind, for some reason.

      Anyway, beyond that, maybe that’s what they want to do, sure. Which is kind of the definition of being selfish, when you think about it. Worrying about only your own concerns even to the detriment of those around you.

      At what point does their right to protect their lifelong possessions trump other people’s right to their own lifelong possessions? Because sure as hell, the longer the recovery takes the more the stuff of the people who left is destroyed through mold and increased water wicking and damage.

      • To assume that by following orders and not trying to return, they are somehow speeding the collective recovery, requires an enormous faith in the wisdom of the authorities. Much more faith than is warranted. There is a time to take matters into your own hands. When a person’s home/business/pets/treasures are under direct threat, that is the time. I’d be working tirelessly to undermine the idiots who were trying to keep me from my home. Many people stayed behind because they believed they had a chance to protect – maybe save their homes. And they’re being selfish? Being part of some larger collective is so important to you that you’d sacrifice your own home, and follow orders with blind faith?

        • I deny your assertion that it takes much more faith than is warranted.

          It takes a modicum of intelligence to realize that you, as a lone person on the ground, simply do not have access to the breadth of information that those in charge are getting. You flush your toilet at home, do you know where that goes and how it’s being dealt with? Are you aware of what chemicals might have been spilled in the water around you from various things that got damaged or destroyed? Do you know when they’re looking to see if there are electrical problems and trying to determine through load usage where shorts in the system might be?

          I understand the reasons many people stayed behind. However, when they insist on staying behind when those who do have the ability to synthesize this information are saying “You need to get out to help us all” is simply selfish.

          • You make some good points, and good on you for not responding in the same snarky tones that I did. I need to remind myself to save the snarkiness for certain other commenters here.

            I maintain that I likely would have been one of the ones to defy the order and fight for my house, and I do not believe that is selfish in the least. Sometimes the best collective action taken is done spontaneously, with neighbours jumping in to help neighbours, even total strangers, regardless of what the authorities might be ordering them to do. And when it comes to homes and livliehoods (and pets, I’ve got a real soft spot for pets), I’m not sure the risk of flushing a toilet or contracting dyptheria is great enough to deny someone the chance to perhaps salvage some threads of their life.

  3. I must agree with “Guest from the West” It is insulting that this was made a political issue. Although I am a Wild Rose supporter which you so unfairly isolated as being the problem, I have made no attempts to get into town. The same is true for my brother and my folks whom all live in High River. It has nothing to do with politics, but i cant blame people for wanting to get in to get something as small as another change of clothes. My sister in-law is 8 months pregnant and barely got out with the cat and a change of clothes. By the time everyone will be allowed back into our homes nothing will be left.

    While we understand that they are keeping us out for our own safety, the local government is not handling the issue well. Aside from the dearth of information on whats going on, they have failed to accept volunteers. I know I would feel better helping, even if its shoving mud off the streets. There are 13000 people being held in limbo, anything is better than waiting. But thanks EmilyOne for spinning this devastation into a anti-Harper, anti-right wing editorial… We appreciate the type-casting.

    • I’m sorry for your family’s loss, but am glad to hear that everyone is safe. I’ve heard so many similar stories.

      I don’t mean that every person who remained behind is a Wildrose supporter. What I was trying to illustrate is how independent citizens are, and how property rights are an important value to many. I’m sure there would be people who remain behind in a similar situation, no matter where it occurred.

    • The author never made it a political issue at all. Nor did she unfairly isolate anyone as the problem. She was trying to provide an accurate portrayal of the town’s people. She mentioned that this was a staunch WR riding as simply one more characteristic that goes along with the rugged individualism that motivates many people in the area. I thought if anything she cast quite a positive light on those who are fighting to stay or return. When she said, “I know the kinds of people who would stay or return…”, she was simply stating a fact, not judging them negatively in the least. I too come from a rural town where most (not all) residents are decidedly individualistic and right leaning. It’s not an insult to call it like it is.

  4. Emily was simply trying to give a first hand and personnel look into high river and she has done a bang up job of it. If u can read you will notice she never blamed anyone or accused anyone of anything. She is giving a lifetime residents insight into this devastated community. As far as the municipal affairs minister is concerned I would bet he hasn’t camped in his mothers back yard for a week refuelling pumps for her and her neighbours while checking on as many pets, people ands homes as possible. Sounds selfish doesn’t it…. Bryce Hubbard, 1st street high river.

  5. Great article!

  6. I am glad your family is safe. I have certainly been thinking about them. In these past few days of devistation and disbelief we need to focus on the positives: the combines and manure trucks that were pressed into service; the smiling fireman saving a senior who was telling him she hadn’t been carried like that since she was married; the hutterite colonies that show up enmass with vanloads of food to feed the displaced people staying at the Nanton arena; the collecting of grad dresses from closets all around to see that the high school grads get their graduation in style; and even that stubborn Danielle Smith who had to be rescued because she was helping to sandbag the hospital when the floodwaters came in too fast to get out. It is truly an amazing town and community that you grew up in.

  7. Trying to find Jack and Carol Woodward of Highriver. Can anyone help me maryln@shaw.ca

  8. Woo woo woo…Has no one noticed that she wrote .” RCMP are going door-to-door with military members — using locksmiths to open doors when needed — and are urging anyone they find to get out. RCMP can arrest residents, but “it’s not a path that we want to go down,” said Blokland.”

    Dont shoot the messenger.

    I am right wing and dont feel offended by her diatribe …howvever did you not read the above again.We live in a Police State!!!. No matter what event, fireworks Canada Day etc there they are.

    Not wanting to help just waiting on the first person too break the miriads of ridiculous laws forced upon us by Politicians.Then they swoop in like Hyenas. This is a time we all should gather together to this common cause and see that it ends in a positive result for all. If George right wing wishes to go to his /her home so be it. If in fact they fall into conditions that ceate their demise …so be it. If Mz leona Leftwing wishes not to go to her home …So be it. We should not hamper or hinder each other with whining and sniveling we should all strive together to create a newer and better reality out of the old. AND We should not have to go thru this with threats of arrest and words of condesencion saying “it’s not a path that we want to go down,” said Blokland.”

    Do not get me wrong there must be police to keep law and order in a free state. That being said ..there is not law and order in a police state!

    This was a free Country do you all not see that we are living in a Police State? worry my friends about that and not who goes where. For eventually we will be living in reserves and fully realizing how our Native American friends felt and feel.

    Do the right thing…. and keep your mouth shut if you can’t. Wise words from my Grandmother

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