Waiting for word from High River

With roads washed out, there's no way to know what remains. Only two things are certain: 'It's just a house and we're safe'

I always imagined I’d be little sad and a little too sentimental when my parents decided to sell my childhood home in High River, Alta. I never thought it would disappear altogether.

That’s the potential scenario my family faces as the worst flood that anyone can remember has devastated communities in southern Alberta. The Highwood River, which is usually not more than a trickle through a wooded area near my family home, has become an angry, grey swirling mass, spilling over its banks and covering nearly the entire town of 12,000 residents, located 65 kilometres south of Calgary.

Here I am, on the final day of a week-long vacation on Vancouver Island, holed up in a hotel room that overlooks the ocean, checking Twitter and Facebook obsessively as I tune into 24-hour news. I’m waiting, hoping, for a picture of the neighbourhood where my childhood home is, or where it used to be, as I field phone calls and text messages from concerned family and friends.

There’s no photo. The home where I grew up, and where my mother has lived for three decades, is too close to the river. It was likely one of the first areas of the town to become inaccessible. But I keep watching the news, just the same.

It’s not the first time the Highwood River has spilled its banks, but it’s by far the worst. One of my early childhood memories is waking up and walking down the stairs from my second-floor room to see all the furniture from the basement piled in the living room. There were two extra couches, a bed, my toys and dress-up clothes, all crammed into the living room, and a couple inches of water in the basement. I wasn’t feeling well that day. I curled up in a pile of camping gear and bedding and fell asleep.

It happened again in 2005, when I was away at university in Calgary. My boyfriend at the time, a carpenter, pulled out and replaced the drywall, which had sucked up the water that nearly reached the electrical outlets in the basement this time. My parents replaced the carpet with removable tiles and bought a pump; they’d be ready for the next one.

There was no way anyone could have been ready.

On the morning of Wednesday, June 19, my mother and stepfather hitched up their fifth-wheel holiday trailer and set off for Kelowna to visit my stepsister for her birthday. With my stepfather newly retired, they were looking forward to more trips in the trailer this summer. The river was running fast when they left, but nothing unusual for this time of year, when the snow pack melts off the Rocky Mountains.

By the time they made it to Kelowna, there were reports of flooding. By Thursday morning, there was a mandatory evacuation in High River. Then, the Trans Canada Highway and the No. 3 Highway both washed out, effectively trapping my parents in Kelowna.

It looks like they could be spending a lot of time in that trailer in the coming months. Last night, the neighbour across the street, whose two-bedroom bungalow faces my family’s grey two-storey posted on Facebook: “My house is done…” She made it out as water started to break the windows in. She wasn’t able to take anything. Another family friend, who has seen his share of disasters as a long-time RCMP officer in Alberta, said this flood is like the last two combined, and then some.

When I talk about changing my flight back to Toronto, where I live now, to fly into Calgary so I can help clean up whatever is left, my step-father, always the level-headed pragmatist, says: “Don’t come. It could be days before we can even get to the house.” Besides, he adds, it’s just a house and we’re safe.

We’re safe, but I’m not looking forward to those days of waiting and wondering. What about that box of mementos in my childhood room? Did that baby spruce sapling I planted in first grade – the one that towered over me when I was home at Christmas – float away? Is the front veranda — where I had my picture taken on the first day of Grade 1, then on my high school graduation, then on my wedding day — still there?

I’m not the only one wondering. These are the types of questions thousands of other Albertans are asking themselves as they hope for the best, plan for the worst, and wait for the water to recede.

Emily Senger is a member of the Maclean’s Digital team. Follow her on Twitter at @emily_senger