Waiting out the High River flood

The text from my sister made my heart drop: ‘Parents’ house flooded. U been watching the news?’

Waiting out the flood

Photo by Chris Bolin

A lake of stagnant water approximately 1.6 kilometres wide and five kilometres long covers a large portion of eastern High River, Alta. Entire homes are submerged in this new and unwanted lake. It smells of sewage and stubbornly remains, nearly two weeks after the Highwood River flooded, an event that placed the town of 13,000 at the epicentre of the worst flooding the province has ever seen.

When the Highwood River spilled over on Thursday, June 20, it drowned my hometown. I return four days later and the streets where I learned to ride a bicycle resemble a war zone. Helicopters buzz overhead and more than 300 troops, dispatched from Edmonton, patrol the streets in light-armoured vehicles. Armed RCMP officers and sheriffs are posted at every road into town, barring access. “This community is not safe. It’s not going to be safe until we have all our infrastructure in place. It doesn’t matter if you live in a dry area or if you live in this area behind us—you can’t come back until we make it safe,” Mayor Emile Blokland told reporters on the Sunday after the flood, as he stood in front of a no-U-turn sign that was all but submerged in water.

While residents in Calgary, Canmore and Medicine Hat—areas that were also flooded—are well into their cleanup, many areas of High River are still deemed unsafe. Thousands of residents remain displaced. Others are only now being allowed back into the town they call home.

The Highwood River rose fast, faster than anyone had ever seen before. That’s what any of High River’s residents will say when they’re asked. By 10 a.m. on June 20, the Highwood River had spilled its banks in the southwest part of town, where it flows between a golf course and a wooded area next to some houses. On the south bank, it turned a swampy creek into a rushing river. It needed still more room, and the river spilled its brown, mucky water over the walking path and around the trunks of a towering cluster of cottonwood trees, one of which may still harbour deep grooves from a child’s rope swing—my rope swing.

That was about the time Colleen Fennell parked her Toyota RAV4 five houses down from my childhood home, a grey two-storey house with a wraparound veranda, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. She was watching the house while my parents took their holiday trailer to Kelowna, B.C., to visit my stepsister and her husband. Fennell heard a flood warning on the radio while she was working in the kitchen at her bed and breakfast, just west of town. Knowing my parents’ home was next to the river, she thought she would move some valuables to higher ground, just in case. The house had seen minor flooding twice before.

When Fennell arrived and saw water streaming up over the walking path and onto 8th Street, she alerted Michael Brown, a neighbour halfway up the block, asking him why town workers weren’t there with sandbags. In previous floods, the town—working with two or three days’ notice—had sandbagged the end of the street, preventing major damage. The conversation with the neighbour took all of five minutes, maybe less. “I parked in dry [land], and now the water was six inches up the wheels,” Fennell says.

Brown, who works at the nearby High River Hospital, had more warning than his neighbours. At 9:15 a.m., a co-worker told him to go home and empty his basement. Brown was home before 10 a.m. and saw some water at the end of the street. In his family’s 16 years in their house, it had never flooded, but he went into the basement and started pulling up his son’s guitars anyway. Twenty minutes later, he stepped outside. “And holy, man, all of a sudden, the water was halfway up the street,” Brown recalls. Adrenalin pumping, he began to think seriously about what to save, hauling up the box of Christmas ornaments and his grandmother’s photo album.

Fennell moved her SUV up the block and ran toward my parents’ house, where it soon became apparent that all the town’s sandbags wouldn’t be able to help. As she moved back to the spot where she had parked not 10 minutes earlier, the water was now up to her knees. Fennell hopped up onto a tree stump in a neighbour’s yard to consider what to do next. “I look toward your house and the water isn’t up to the front porch yet, but it’s definitely to the first step. And it’s swirling—it’s fast. I think: ‘To hell with Alice’s vinyl records collection! It can drown.’ ” Fennell then quickly bolted from near the river. She spotted a neighbour with two small children and told them to get out fast. She hopped into her SUV and drove to higher ground.

Brown backed his Toyota Corolla—loaded with the family’s white German shepherd, Lewis—down the driveway where water was now pooling. “I glanced into my rear-view mirror and I could see the water coming over the berm.” That same water began pouring into the basement windows of my childhood home, destroying my mom’s record collection, boxes of family photos and my pint-sized dance tutus that my mom sewed by hand more than two decades ago and still couldn’t bear to part with.

In the white bungalow across the street from my parents’ home, Anita Halas was getting ready for work. Her shift at Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown High River didn’t start until 2 p.m., but she was already in her uniform. Her husband, Larry, had noticed the river level rising and went out to get sandbags. In the 2005 flood, one of their basement walls partially collapsed and they wanted to be ready this time. “I was in the kitchen and I heard gushing,” Halas recalls. “It was just like a waterfall.” She ran downstairs. The sewer pipe had burst. As she rushed back upstairs, Halas heard glass shatter. Water began to pour in through a basement window.

Larry Halas arrived home in his truck. “You’re still here? We’ve got to go now!” he told his wife. Halas put on her running shoes, grabbed her purse and stepped out the back door. The water was up to her knees. As Anita and Larry Halas drove to their daughter’s home to tell her to get herself and her three young children packed and out, the overflowing Highwood River poured into their basement and garage. The muddy brown water washed away photos of the Halas’s son, Nathanial. Nate, as I knew him, was my first boyfriend. I was 16 the summer we started dating. He was 17. We spent hours together floating down the Highwood River on inner tubes. The water ran low that summer and we often had to get off our inner tubes and walk. A year after we broke up, Nate drowned in the same Highwood River that now swept away the family pictures and his wallet that his mother had kept. “That’s all I have left of him,” Halas says from her daughter’s home in the neighbouring town of Okotoks, where she has become one of the thousands displaced—and devastated—by the flood.

By 11 a.m., Fred Stegmeier, a 30-year EMS employee, drove the half-dozen blocks from the hospital where he was working to check on his house, a brown split-level at the opposite end of the street from my parents’ home. When Stegmeier saw water up to his front deck, he turned around and drove back to the hospital. “Just so many emotions went through my head,” Stegmeier says. “We had not flooded before. We were always the ones that helped others.”

A truck pushed into a farmer's field by flood waters southwest of High River, Alta. (Emily Senger/Maclean's)

As my former neighbours grabbed what they could and left 8th Street, the place where my mom and dad custom-built their home 25 years ago, the scene was repeated again and again. The Highwood River pushed downtown, where people were rescued from rooftops by boat, tractor and dump truck. It doubled back toward the east, with a current strong enough to float trucks, and their terrified occupants who were trying to flee.

I was on vacation in Victoria when my phone started buzzing. The text message from my sister in Calgary made my heart drop: “Parents’ house flooded. U been watching the news?” The next text was worse, a picture of the downtown movie theatre surrounded by brown water. During the past two major floods in High River, in 1995 and 2005, the water hadn’t been nearly that high. By the time my sister texted me, the town had declared a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order.

RCMP say approximately 300 residents didn’t leave. Bryce Hubbard, 27, lives in Okotoks, but travelled to High River with his younger brother to help his mom save his childhood home. He brought two gas-powered generators and an electric pump. “If we’re not here to put gas in the pumps, the water is just going to come up to the ceiling,” Hubbard told me over the phone on the Monday after the flood.

Besides fuelling the pumps, Hubbard offered forbidden glimpses of the inside to those on the outside. On Saturday, as parts of town started to dry out, he texted my sister a picture of our family home. There it was, standing tall on a lawn littered with mud and debris. He says there was water up to the first landing in the basement. While everyone in my family was relieved to see the picture, it made the wait even worse. We knew the house was standing, not floating in pieces somewhere downstream as we feared, and we were ready to get back in and start pumping water out of the basement.

As my family waited, everyone dealt with stress differently. I worked 14-hour days for Maclean’s, touring the devastation and then trying to make sense of it all. My parents parked their holiday trailer at the family farm out of town, where my mother alternated between sadness and worry. My stepsister lost her appetite. My stepfather, a mild-tempered man who never swears, dropped at least two F-bombs in the past few days. He’s angry at the mayor and threatened to drive a tractor into town to start pumping water out of the basement. My sister says she’ll go with him. Their threats—jokes at first—sounded more real with each passing day.

The uncertainty of what’s on the other side of the police barriers is tough for everyone on the outside. On the Sunday after the flood, police arrested a drunk 24-year-old High River man who demanded access, then threatened RCMP at a checkpoint with a knife. Three more people were arrested in the following days as they tried to sneak into town. By Thursday and Friday, a week after the flood, a group of approximately 50 residents protested at a police barrier on the northwest side of town. With residents rapidly running out of patience, the town announced a staged re-entry plan on June 28—nine days after the flood. Residents in the least damaged areas were due to return first. Those whose homes are still under standing water in the east could be out of their homes for a month or more. By the time they’re let back in, they may not have anything to return to.

Flooded homes in High River's Hampton Hills neighbourhood on June 29, 2013. (Emily Senger/Maclean's)

Those who are allowed back into town face months of cleanup and heartache. On June 29, residents in the northwest were the first permitted to return. The rodeo grounds served as a welcome centre, where residents lined up for an hour or more in the dusty parking lot as the sun beat down. When they reached the front of the line, a volunteer handed each of them a return package and informed them of their colour, as determined by a home inspector. Everyone was hoping for green: a green designation means minimal or no damage and a habitable home. Next is yellow, which means there is some damage, but the home is habitable. Orange is worse, meaning the home has extensive damage that needs repairs before it can be habitable. Finally, red indicates a home is severely damaged—either its structure or electrical systems, or both, are in bad shape—it may not be salvageable.

Some residents walked through the dusty parking lot smiling. For others, the news was dire. Christine Doepel emerged from the welcome centre in tears. “I was expecting our house to be yellow, but it’s orange,” she said. Doepel isn’t alone. In the northwest section of town, there are 1,817 buildings, mainly residential. Of those buildings, 639 received a green rating, 318 were deemed yellow, 719 were orange and 141 red. For those who got good news, there is something of a survivors’ guilt. “There are going to be so many red dots and orange dots. I feel for them,” says Robert Tipple, a business owner whose own northwest home wasn’t damaged. He’s still waiting to learn the fate of his pizza shop, which sits near the edge of the lake on High River’s east side.

As I write, I’m back in Toronto and my parents are standing in that line, waiting for the colour code that will determine how the next few months play out. We think the house is probably orange. We’re not ready for it to be red. I get a call a few hours later. It’s red.

“It’s way worse than we thought it would be,” says my mom. When my parents, my sister and her fiancé enter the house, they find the basement ceiling on the floor. The deep freezer is tipped over and there is rotting meat everywhere. Mud and sewage coats everything. On the veranda—the same one where I took some wedding pictures two years ago—the mud is so thick that there are green things growing out of it. There is clearly damage to the main-floor office, which is closest to the river. Water seeped under both the front and back doors. The upstairs, the only place that looks like the home I remember, is caked with muddy footprints from the emergency responders who searched for anyone in distress a week ago. “I don’t even know where to begin,” my mom says. Those same comments will echo through the town in the days to come, as thousands more open their front doors and step into their own disaster zone.

Alberta Flood Relief Rogers and Fido customers who are interested in making a $5 donation to help those in the affected regions can do so on their mobile phones by sending a free text message with the word “ABHELP” to 4664. One hundred per cent of proceeds will go to the Canadian Red Cross.

High River residents are seeking volunteers to help with clean up. The province is organizing buses for Calgary residents who want to volunteer. More details on that here.


Waiting out the High River flood

  1. It’s time to discuss moving portions of the town.

    • Nope. Mismanaged petrodollars from the government encourage this anomaly of building expensive homes in flood plains. A herald article said everywhere in NA only poor people live in flood plains but AB is governed by dreamers who think everyone is entitled.

      • So are you insinuating that the people who own and live in these homes are “well off”??? It’s not true. In the case of the Hamptons, it’s blue collar workers with 2 to 4 kids. It’s retired couples that built those homes to live out the rest of their days in. It’s renters. It’s hard working firefighters, paramedics and nurses. It’s teachers and newly self-employed entrepreneurs.
        We do not hit the “well off” bracket in our income tax claims and we certainly did not build in this new lake because we believed we were “entitled” to live where it floods. We built/moved in this area because we BELIEVED that we would NOT flood where we were located. There was NO indication that our homes would flood and no builder, developer or realtor knew about or made public the documentation supplied to the town by the government even back in 1974 predicting that this type of flooding would occur.
        Please DON’T assume that we are well off because frankly, after this, government support or not, I’m not sure we’ll be able to ever return to the way of life we worked so hard to get to before the flood. We are forever financially strained at this point.

        • You don’t have communities like Roxborough, Bow Crescent or even Hamptons in flood zones anywhere else in NA. Usually just very modest affairs locate there, and river views for property appreciation don’t enter into the calculations when someone takes up residence there. More pragmatic ideas, such as the one in the Herald article by Osborn a few days ago are the main consideration. Google it and see the geology professors comment that Canmore’s Cougar Creek which is built in an alluvial flood plain is a regular part of his course as an example of inane mountain engineering. That is my point- We have a weak petrostate government with an attitude that anything is possible. Read Nikiforuk’s book, the energy of slaves for background on why 44 year old petrostate governments would do stupid things like sell flood plain land for development, if you have time after the Osborn article.

          I helped High RIver victims and feel sorry for them whether they knowingly tossed the dice or were unpleasantly surprised by a first flooding as you were, but the government has no business rebuilding this area and pretending it is the flood of the century. Twice in the last 135 years the Bow flowed at 2,200 yet this one topped out at 1,700. Even worse, Montreal Engineering study says max Bow flow could hit 6,100. Read Osborn’s article which if I link will likely not make it past the censor police.

  2. Yesterday I spent 6 hours with a group of 15 volunteers cleaning out one basement. What was once filled with storage, memories and living space was gutted back to nothing. It was backbreaking physical and emotional work. When we were done the residents were left with an empty basement, still in need of cleaning and massive mouldering pile of memories on their front lawn ending to be trucked away. Repetitively throughout the day the residents expressed their gratitude. I cannot imagine the impossibility of having to face ths disaster alone.

    Every house in the entire neighborhood was in the same situation. If you live in the area and are able bodied, get your gum boots, gloves,dust mask and materials ready and volunteer.

    Now is not the time for debate or discussion. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and act. If you are able volunteer or donate.

    Many small acts of service will help the flood victims to get back on their feet. It will give them hope and the ability to walk the long road to recovery that lies ahead of them.

    • After bypassing the volunteer center previously two weeks ago , and just going into residential areas on my own. This morning I drove 85 miles to High River, and went to the volunteer center at the rodeo grounds, and did nothing but waste time waiting. I went to the table which was supposed to be dispatching people, I waited in line behind three people who eventually were given an address to go to. When I got to the kid sending people out, I was asked if I had registered my name with them. I told him no, and asked for an address to go to. He said I had to register first. So I stood in a different line, and eventually registered. I then stood in line behind people, and eventually got to the table sending people out again. So I asked a middle aged woman now working the table for an address to go to. She asked me if I had listened to the safety announcement, and I said no. She said she couldn’t send me to a place until I listened to the safety spiel first. So I went and listened to the safety spiel. Basically it was, wear a mask, wear rubber gloves, and dial 911 for anything.
      After this, I got back in line behind twelve people, and this kid was at the table again. After three minutes he finally got two people on their way. Now a group of only ten people (who had identified themselves to the kid behind the table that they were there as a group) were still in front of me waiting to be sent out. Six minutes later I’m still standing behind them, and out of the twenty pieces of paper in front of this kid, he still hasn’t picked one up, and given them an address to go to. At this point I said ‘screw this’; I walked away, got in my vehicle, and drove 85 miles back home. If High River needs help so bad I would think that after two weeks, and more they would have things streamlined a whole lot better than this for getting people through the stupid volunteer center. The town can do what they want, I am not going back to help again.

      • I lived and volunteered in High River and you need to think about when volunteers are needed and when they’re not. In this situation, help was needed at the beginning when it was cleanout time, not so much when trades people need to be involved. Thanks for coming out but please stop your whinning and be thankful you have a place to return to.

        • My point is, I was further ahead to just walk/drive into an area and go to work like I did the first three drives I made up to High River, instead of wasting time at that ridiculous volunteer center.
          Yes the people I met were great during each time I went up, every last one of them. I was more than happy to do it, god forbid I may be in the same situation one day.
          But to drive 85 miles to stand in lineups at that volunteer center when the media is saying the town needs help, tends to grate on a persons nerves. So if you think I’m out of line for complaining about wasting time, and gas to stand around, why don’t you try it sometime.
          By the way Greg, whinning isn’t a word, but whining is.

  3. I’m sorry for your loss Emily, but after spending the day in High River today helping gut a basement I know that the community is going to not only recover but prosper! What an amazing group of people I saw today. PS – beautiful story; well written, thanks for sharing!

  4. I spent most of Friday driving a bus with volunteers around High River, distributing free sandwiches, pop, and other snacks donated (along with their employees’ time) by the Schneider company.

    High River has what Haiti never did, swarms of people and equipment working away to clear the wreckage and replace or repair what’s left.

    • It has petrodollars to cover up the government mismanagement.

  5. Well written Emily. Thank you for sharing your story.I also grew up in High River and have many of the same memories as you, floating down the river on inner tubes, biking my summers away on many of those streets and parks. I had to watch and read everything happening from my home in Los Angeles, as my sister followed and took photos for the Calgary Herald. We are fortunate as my sister, aunt other friends and family have all been deemed ‘orange’. My thoughts are with friends, family and the residents of High River. My hometown.

  6. You are an amazing writer Emily – this piece creates such an emotional response. My thoughts have been with your family this past week as I have read some of your previous articles. I no longer live in the area but still have so many connections and memories with several of your family members. I know there are hundreds of stories similar to this playing out across the entire town. You have helped the rest of us truly feel the depths of the devastation.

  7. They need more help. We were there today. The town needs all the volunteers they can get.

  8. Thank you Emily,

    My heart is with your family and all the families in tremendous distress. In all this High Riverites are so appreciative and even hopeful. One bucket of mud at a time, kids hauling handfuls of slimy crap, people arriving from all over Canada and the US, sandwich volunteers, the Red Cross, church volunteers who have flocked into town in hundreds with highly appreciated crisis project management skills are flooding in after the water, structural engineers wandering up the driveways to offer their expertise – the list goes on. I witnessed traffic jams of people arriving to offer their hands, feet, backs, strength and hearts. I have been privileged to work alongside dozens of kind-eyed (often this is all you see of people’s faces that are masked and muddy), boot-heavy volunteers this past few days as they wade through slippery sewage/mud.

    Keep coming. Every day sees a little more hope.

  9. Good article by Osborn in Herald yesterday saying this is a political myth that it is the flood of the century for the Bow and Elbow, so I imagine the Highwood River will be similar. The link won’t make it past the censor police here, so Google it. I wonder what Redford will do if they get another “flood of the century” 3 years from now after she has paid for everyone to repair the 2013 damage in the flood plain.

  10. I am a resident of the Hamptons in High River – in fact, you can see the back of my house in the picture above. I am absolutely devastated that we have been locked out of our homes without even an inkling of what our futures will hold. We will likely return to nothing…and who will be there to pick up the pieces since insurance likely won’t cover? Surely the government has a plan to reimburse us for the loss of irreplaceable items we have lost due to the utter lack of organization or communication that took place the day of the flood.

  11. i have spent the last 9 days removing mud from a number of homes and commercial businesses in high river, the flood damage is horrific, But the spirit of the people is strong and the rebuilding is well underway..the generosity of the volunteers is amazing.. keep it up people and stay strong !

    • I helped High RIver victims and feel sorry for them whether they knowingly tossed the dice or were unpleasantly surprised by a first flooding, but the government has no business rebuilding this area and pretending it is the flood of the century. Two times in the last 135 years the Bow flowed at 2,200 yet this one topped out at only 1,700. Even worse, Montreal Engineering study says max Bow flow could hit 6,100. Read Osborn’s article which if I link will likely not make it past the censor police.

      I know the Highwood rather than the Bow goes through High River but you get my point. Government paying people to rebuild in HR means they are potentially setting up for another round of losses which could be MUCH bigger if another flood comes in 3 years.

  12. Just my 2 cents…

    We just got our internet back yesterday, it’s so hilarious to read the paper or watch news reports on the flooding, trying to glean information about the state of our home or what the government wants those of us who have been denied by our insurance companies to do. At the end of every news report or article it always says, “For more information, go to http://www.whatever.ca“. Which is ridiculously funny, because anyone who was really hit hard with flooding definitely doesn’t have internet access, even going on a month later. Do the news channels seriously have no idea what’s going on down here? It looks like a third world country! Those of us who have been “let back in” our homes are still months or years away from being able to move back in, if we ever will.

    It’s easy to feel like the rest of the province is starting to forget and move on, while we’re still mucking out basements and coming to terms with losing our life’s savings, baby photos, good credit standing, and everything we have worked so hard for.

    Every day the number of volunteers dwindles, and with the mould that’s growing everywhere, I honestly don’t think anyone should be cleaning out these houses, let alone innocent volunteers. But with no guidance from the government, and insurance companies leaving us high and dry (excuse the pun), what else is a person to do?

    The Red Cross is taking donations, but guess what? They’re for immediate emergency needs only. I know many donors expect their $ to go toward helping Albertans clean out the homes and rebuild their lives, but that’s not the case at all. As someone who is here, every day, doing the dirty work, I have to say that if you want to help, FIND SOMETHING REAL AND TANGIBLE THAT YOU CAN DO, PERSONALLY, TO HELP YOUR NEIGHBOURS.

    Take some water and sandwiches, and just pick a street. Or choose one home, perhaps one with kids around the same ages as yours, and ask what they need. A bag of gently used toys and clothes would be a GODSEND to most of us. Our kids have been through so much, losing literally everything but the clothes on our backs. A new change of clothes and something to play with to take their minds off the mess would be AMAZING.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m thankful for the services that the Red Cross provided in the first few days after the crisis. Emergency beds, rubber boots, masks, bleach, bottled water… these were all great, and very appreciated. But now that we’re not in “emergency mode” anymore, it’s my belief that most of the money that hard-working Albertans are donating to the Red Cross will simply go into the general fund for the next disaster. Which is fine, if donors are AWARE that this is where their money is going. But, for the most part, I doubt that this is the case.

    Sorry for the rant. Just hoping to maybe get the word out about what we’re going through here. Thank you to all the amazing volunteers. We appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.

    Love from High River,

    • Dear Annie:

      Believe me I do feel for what you are going through, and three times I have driven eighty five miles to help throw peoples life possessions into dumpsters, and clean out basements. On these trips, I just bypassed the volunteer center, and just drove into a residential area, and went to work. Now that it’s three weeks out since people were allowed back into the town, I have four days off work, and made the trip to High River again. This time I went to the volunteer centre. I stood in a line to be told where I could help. I was then sent to a line up to register. After this I stood in the line to be sent somewhere. Then I was told I had to listen to a safety announcement before they could send me out. The safety announcement/spiel encompassed a girl reading a scripted statement saying basically to wear a mask, wear gloves, and to phone 911 for anything, and everything. After listening to these earth shattering revelations I again stood in a lineup that essentially never moved, to find out where someone wanted help, if at all. After standing in this lineup that moved at a snails pace, for way to long, I said ‘screw it’, and I walked back to my vehicle, then drove 85 miles home, and I’m not going back.
      If they want help in that town they can get people into, and out of that volunteer center in a decent amount of time without a bunch of bureaucracy. After three weeks they should have that volunteer center at the rodeo grounds streamlined a whole lot better than they do. I know women I was working with two weeks ago said they weren’t returning after having donating their time all day long, and no one had even set out portable toilets within a decent amount of walking distance from where we were cleaning out a house. Three blocks is a long walk to just use a portable bathroom. I just went into the person’s backyard, and peed, I didn’t care if I had an audience or not. Sorry for my rant, but these are some things that have made me decide to find other things to do on my days off work.


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