HIGH RIVER, Alta. – As residents in one flooded southern Alberta city were being allowed to return to their flooded homes Tuesday, the province said people who refused to obey a mandatory evacuation order for the town hardest hit were making a bad situation worse.
Officials were allowing the first group of about 10,000 evacuees in Medicine Hat to return to their properties. Ron Robinson, emergency measures director for the city of more than 60,000, said inspectors were going in with homeowners to assess whether their houses were livable.
He said some people might not be allowed to stay if there was still floodwater or utilities were lacking. He also warned them to be “mentally prepared” for some severe damage.
In High River, as many as 300 people who didn’t leave when ordered to do so last week were adding to the stress of trying to get the town of 13,000 back on its feet. They were discovered as RCMP and soldiers did a door-to-door search of 3,337 homes.
“The situation within the community is not safe and we encourage those citizens to comply with the order. They are now starting to contribute to the problem,” said Dave Galea of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
He said first responders were faced with having to help those who stayed behind instead of checking homes and buildings to see if they are safe to occupy.
“They are running out of supplies. They have been isolated in the town for a number of days now, so water to drink, food supplies (are an issue),” said Galea. “If first responders that are present in the community have to resupply them, then that takes them away from the focus of making things right.
“It is also a point of friction between the residents who have evacuated and those who are staying in their homes.”
Provincial officials said 80 per cent of the town remained without services and the waste-water treatment plant wasn’t working.
Galea acknowledged people who are getting angry because they haven’t been allowed to go back to even see their homes since the order went out last Thursday as the Highwood River burst its banks.
“There is great frustration that is frankly understandable. People have been out of their homes for awhile. But the water has not receded to the point where (crews) can safely inspect all of the homes.
“It is going to take a number of days to be able to determine what is safe to re-enter and what is not safe.”
Police said two women in High River had to be rescued. One was picked up by boat and the other by a Canadian Forces light armoured vehicle. Both women, police said, had indicated their situations were becoming “quite desperate” and appeared to be very distraught.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said Monday he has little sympathy for those who remained behind.
“I’m not and the community will not direct … time, energy and resources for those who refuse to leave,” said a visibly angry Griffiths. “If they care about their community and the people in it, they need to leave.”
High River’s mayor was also standing firm.
“Everyone has a reason why they want to be back in the community, but the logistics of making that happen are enormous, because we can’t let people into the community unescorted,” said Emile Blokland.
“There’s hundreds of people with a reason to come back into the community.”
In Calgary on Tuesday, bridges were reopening, public transit was improving and dried mud was being swept from streets, but the downtown core remained far from normal.
The city’s emergency management director, Bruce Burrell, said groundwater was slowing down cleanup.
“We have a number of areas in the city where we’ve been doing pumping, and when we stop the pumping, they just fill right back up — the basements of the buildings, the parkades, the underpasses,” he said.
Burrell said it was a delicate balance between restoring power to residential communities and getting the economic heart of the city restored.
He also said it was important not to rush to flick the switch back on, even though electricity might be available in some areas. Doing that too soon could blow a transformer, potentially cutting off power for months.
“You’d really like to say ‘full speed ahead … we’re going to put the power on to that area’ and then the bigger problem we create is we then displace another 3,000 residents,” Burrell said.
“I don’t want to get back into housing additional people for long periods of time. I want to have people going back in and having a sense of normalcy as much as possible.”
— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary