Alberta gives $1B for flood relief

The Alberta government is approving $1 billion to kick start the first phase of recovery from what the premier has called the worst flooding in the province’s history.

Alison Redford said Monday the money will be used to support people who have been forced from their homes, as well as to run relief centres and to start rebuilding infrastructure.

She said the government will provide pre-loaded debit cards to displaced residents to help with their immediate housing needs and day-to-day purchases.

Those who qualify will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child.

“This is going to be a tough week, but we are going to get through it,” she said at a news conference. “We are going to stay committed and we are going to make sure that, in the long term, we do everything we need to ensure that families and communities can feel safe and that we rebuild and honour our past and our future,” she said.

“We are going to do — please listen to my words — whatever it takes to get everyone back to a place where they can continue to live their lives.”

Redford said the unforeseen expense means Alberta won’t meet its goal of balancing the budget next year.

“It is going to affect the budget and I will say right now, because someone is going to ask the question, ‘Are we sticking to the plan to balance the budget?’ No, we’re not,” she said.

“The world changed (last) Thursday morning and I think as a Treasury Board we’ve come to terms with that. We think Albertans have come to terms with that.

“This is like nothing we have ever faced before and we are up to the challenge.”

Torrential rain last week filled up creeks and rivers that were unable to contain so much water in such a short time and surged over their banks to inundate communities throughout much of southern Alberta.

Redford’s announcement came at the same time Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said almost all of the 75,000 city citizens who had to flee high water from the Bow and Elbow rivers last week could return home.

Nenshi said only people who live in the downtown area and in a small section of the Inglewood district directly to the east were still being kept out.

He warned property owners returning to assess damage and start the long cleanup would need to be cautious and likely wouldn’t have utility services right away.

Further east, in Medicine Hat, there was no move to allow people to go home, even though the South Saskatchewan River crested Monday morning.

Water that had submerged streets and surrounded homes and businesses was slowly receding. But Ron Robinson, director of emergency measures, warned that protective barriers continued to be “bombarded” by the high and fast-moving river.

“The structural integrity of our berms is at issue and we require vigilant monitoring. Substantial flooding continues to impact our berms and (they) could fail suddenly,” Robinson said at an update.

“This is why there is an urgent need for people to be safe.”

The city was starting to turn its attention to recovery, however, including “facilitating the return of as many folk as we can where it is deemed safe to do so.”

About 1,000 homes were hit by high water and 10,000 people who were forced to head for higher ground on the weekend were still out. About 1,500 people were registered at the city’s emergency centre and accommodation had been provided for about 600.

Mayor Norm Boucher said it would be at least several days before the city would be “more mobile.”

“It’s still not safe for people to return home. The water has moved down but it hasn’t moved down a lot,” Boucher said. “There’s still debris coming out. We have some dams that are starting to leak a little bit.”

Sand-bagging efforts continued as a result, he said.

“I know (people) want to go back … but the reality is they won’t have electricity. They won’t have gas in the house. They can’t run pumps if they have water in the basement.”

Anyone trying to go back early “will be stopped,” he said.

Among the sites left waterlogged was the Medalta Potteries National Historic Site.

Spokesman Barry Finkelman checked out the damage from an escarpment.

“It looks like we may have missed the bullet … we probably have about two or three inches of water, maybe six inches of water in the building … but until we get into the site we don’t know,” he said.

“We were anticipating anywhere up to six feet of water in the building. We had raised as many of the artifacts as possible up off the ground.”

Medicine Hat officials have said this flood appears to be worse than the “flood of the century” in 1995. Finkelman said it’s the fourth flood in the area in 20 years.

“We seem to be doing the same protection year after year, so maybe it’s time for us to look seriously at flood-proofing the city,” he said.

The deluge, while serious, was not as bad as had originally been feared after the devastation in Calgary and other communities upstream. Water managed to top sandbag barriers in some areas of the city and there was flooding in some neighbourhoods, but other defences remained dry.

Back in Calgary, organizers with the Calgary Stampede said crews were working hard on the rodeo grounds to ensure the world-famous event goes ahead next week “come hell or high water.”

President Bob Thompson said workers have been pumping out millions of litres of muddy water. Professional cleaning crews were scraping away mud away and sanitizing buildings.

People in High River, the community hardest hit by the flooding, didn’t have much reason for optimism. Mayor Emile Blokland said there was still no timeline for when 13,000 evacuees would be able to return.

He said he understood their frustration, but explained that the town’s infrastructure had suffered a “critical blow” and every house needed to be inspected.

Police said one drunken man brandished a knife did try to get past officers at a High River security checkpoint.

RCMP said the 24-year-old man demanded that he be allowed to return to his property. He was arrested and charges were pending.

Pictures of the natural disaster have flashed around the world. On Monday, Prince William and his wife Kate wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pass along their sympathies.

“Catherine and I have been saddened to learn of the deaths and destruction caused by the unprecedented flooding throughout the province of Alberta,” said the note released by Harper’s office.

William and Kate provided a much-needed morale boost in 2011 when they visited the northern Alberta community of Slave Lake shortly after it was ravaged by wildfires. It was an unscheduled stop for the then-newly weds who were on their first visit as a couple to Canada.