HIGH RIVER, Alta. – The Alberta government says any return by residents to the town hardest hit by flooding is still days away.
The mayor of High River had suggested that a timeline for plans to go back was close, but Rick Fraser, the government member appointed to oversee the town’s recovery, said Wednesday that it was still being finalized.
Crews are still working, he said, to restore basic services, to rid the community of contaminated standing water and to make things safe.
But Fraser suggested the news was positive.
“I am very pleased to be able to tell you that the think around this is in terms of days, not weeks,” he said.
“I want the residents of High River to know that officials are working with the RCMP and other disaster-response agencies to eliminate these hazards and restore basic essential services so that we can place residents back in their community as soon as possible.”
Fraser said the re-entry, when it comes, will be staged.
The town of Slave Lake took a similar approach when a wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in 2011. People were allowed to return in three groups — essential workers such as hospital, utilities and municipal staff first; then staff from businesses such as banks and grocery stores and finally other town residents.
Fraser also said that pre-loaded debit cards to help evacuees with expenses would go to High River residents first starting Thursday. Premier Alison Redford announced the cards earlier in the week as part of an initial $1 billion to kick-start recovery. Adults who have had to leave their homes for seven days or more are to get $1,250 each and children are eligible for $500.
About 300 people who have defied a mandatory evacuation order and stayed in High River will not be eligible for the cards, Fraser said.
“These people will need to leave High River to become eligible.”
First Nations evacuees and temporary foreign workers will also be eligible for the money.
In Calgary, police confirmed Wednesday that an 83-year-old woman who died while that city was flooding last week drowned in her ground-floor apartment.
Deputy police chief Roger Chaffin said the woman’s suite was partially below-grade, making it easier for the water to pour in.
“I couldn’t even speculate as to how she became overcome by the water, just to say that the victim was overcome by water and drowned,” he said.
Chaffin said police were at the woman’s door last Thursday night to tell her about a mandatory evacuation and she said she would be leaving. He said the woman didn’t have mobility issues and there were no indications that she needed help.
Her body was found Sunday by friend who went to check on her. Earlier reports suggested the woman stayed because she didn’t want to leave her cat behind.
While hundreds of people in High River, Medicine Hat, Calgary and other communities were trying to get back into their neighbourhoods Wednesday, campers making plans for the upcoming long weekend were being warned to stay out.
Dave Galea of Alberta Emergency Management advised outdoor enthusiasts to steer clear of backcountry spots damaged by flooding.
“It’s important for people to check and make sure that the campgrounds that they intend to go to are still open,” he said.
“Many have been closed as a result of the flooding situation.”
Galea urged people to heed posted closures.
“People should obey the closing signs. When a park is closed, it’s closed for reasons of safety.”
He pointed out that in Kananaskis Country, a popular recreational area west of Calgary, more than 1,200 campers had to be moved after flooding began last week.
He also issued a stern warning to boaters tempted by flood-swollen rivers.
“They put their lives at risk for the thrill of being on fast water,” he said. “It puts the first responders at risk, who are going to have to rescue them when things go bad.
“The first responders are busy enough dealing with the aftermath of the flooding and shouldn’t have to worry about stupidity.”
A list of which campgrounds are closed and which are open is on the government of Alberta’s website.