Ryan Dunfield and Shanna McElrea were beyond discouraged Sunday when they returned to their new home on the Elbow River in Calgary to find their recently renovated basement a sodden mess.
The couple was among 65,000 Calgarians who were told they were being allowed to go back to assess the damage from flooding that has left Alberta’s largest city awash in dank debris and dirty water.
Dunfield and McElrea just moved to Calgary from Vancouver in May; the basement in their new home had been redone just six months ago.
Chest-high water that poured into their basement destroyed everything.
On Sunday, they were tearing off damp drywall and ripping up squishy carpet. Their mud-caked, water-logged couches sat on the curb.
“The majority of our living space is available,” Dunfield said as friends helped clear out his home’s lower level. “But the heart of a house is located in a basement. We’ll have to get new boilers, furnace, hot-water tank. All the electrical is toast.”
Dumpsters already lined the streets in affected neighbourhoods and were beginning to fill with lamps, rugs, mattresses and filthy furniture.
On some front lawns, photos and paintings lay drying and curling in the sun.
Army personnel patrolled the streets. Neighbours commiserated.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi gave strict orders earlier in the day about what to watch for as residents re-entered their neighbourhoods, but he also redirected people’s focus downstream. He said communities such as Medicine Hat were still bracing for the fury of flooding and his city would offer whatever assistance it could.
“We’ve turned a corner, but we are still in a state of emergency,” he said. “Our hearts and thoughts and prayers are with our colleagues downstream.”
Some Calgarians were returning to properties spared by flooding, but others were facing extensive repairs to homes and businesses. About 75,000 people had to leave at the height of the crisis as the Elbow and Bow rivers surged over their banks Thursday night.
Nenshi spoke firmly at Sunday’s news briefing about how people should go about checking their properties. He advised them to turn around if water were still evident on streets and sidewalks and said that under no circumstances should they enter homes if water welled over entry ways or sloshed over electrical outlets.
He suggested homeowners use letter-sized sheets of paper taped to windows to communicate with utility workers: “Gas needed. Electricity needed. Water-pumping needed.”
“I know people are excited to get home. I know people really need to see the conditions of their houses. But remember, safety first.”
Nenshi said crews were working hard to restore services and he thanked Calgarians for heeding the call to conserve drinking water.
He had already warned that recovery will be a matter of “weeks and months” and the damage costs will be “lots and lots.”
While pockets of the city’s core were drying out, some areas were still submerged. Most road surfaces were dry and crews could be seen in one neighbourhood just south of downtown sweeping up heaps of tangled branches, wood planks and other debris.
The Bow River was still pooling around the Calgary Zoo on St. George’s Island, although all animals except two zebras remained. The striped beasts were moved Friday to a wildlife centre south of the city.
The mayor didn’t anticipate that anyone could return to work downtown until at least the middle of the week.
Public and separate schools were also to remain closed Monday. Provincial exams for Grade 12 students were waived.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said that about two dozen communities overall were under states of emergency — some areas slowly starting to emerge from the watery onslaught and others still bracing for it.
Three bodies have been recovered since the flooding began and a fourth person was still missing.
Griffiths said no place has been hit harder than the town of High River, south of Calgary. It will be some time before residents there will be allowed back.
The waiting and worrying were causing emotions to run high, but Griffiths said virtually every home in the town of 13,000 would need to be inspected.
High River Mayor Emile Blokland pleaded with everyone to be patient. He said the town’s infrastructure has been served a critical blow and there is no timeline for when citizens can return.
“They need to stay away from High River,” he said. “We cannot let you back into the community until it’s safe to do so.
“We’re working as fast as we can. We have approximately 1,000 people on the ground in different capacities making this happen.”
RCMP Staff Sgt. Brian Jones said only about 10 per cent of homes had been checked. He said the atmosphere was “surreal.”
“We’re finding a great deal of mud, a great deal of sludge on the streets. The homes are secure. It’s almost like time stopped.”
Tensions were also rising downstream and to the east where 10,000 people in Medicine Hat’s flood zone were instructed to head for higher ground as the powerful South Saskatchewan River rose.
The river was not expected to crest until Monday, but by Sunday morning it was lapping over its banks in low-lying areas and people were busy laying down thousands of sandbags. A spokesman for the city of more than 60,000 said some sections near the river had been closed.
The South Saskatchewan slices through Medicine Hat and three bridges connect the two halves. Two of the bridges closed Sunday and drivers were being warned that traffic would be barred from the third around suppertime, leaving the two sides cut off from each other.
But the province said Sunday evening that the last bridge would remain open because the river wasn’t rising as fast as it had been, and that the flow would be below what the bridge could handle.
Mayor Norm Boucher said most people ordered to leave had done so, but a handful were refusing. He warned that officials could not guarantee their safety.
“We’re going to go around again to make sure that they’re out of there, because the water will be even higher than this and it may be very difficult to reach anybody,” said Boucher.
Ron Robinson, director of emergency measures, was asked if people could be forcibly removed from their homes.
Yes, he replied. “They can be fined, they can be jailed. We need to protect lives even if they don’t want us to.”
The Siksika First Nation, an hour’s drive east of Calgary, said about 1,000 residents had to leave their houses and seek shelter in emergency centres. The province issued a mandatory evacuation order for much of the aboriginal community as the rain-engorged Bow breached its banks.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. It’s very stressful,” Chief Fred Rabbit Carrier said in a statement.
“It’s still too early to assess damage as we are in crisis mode. We just want to ensure people are safe.“
The community of Morley, part of the Stoney Nation west of Calgary, was also under an evacuation order and was dealing with waterlogged homes.
And the Tsuu T’ina reserve on the southwest edge of Calgary said homes and an area golf course had been damaged.
Back in Calgary, emergency measures chief Bruce Burrell warned that despite the improving situation, the city was still in emergency mode.
The impact of the high water extended well beyond residential neighbourhoods. The Saddledome hockey arena, home of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, was extensively damaged. The team has said boards, dressing rooms, player equipment and several rows of seats are a total loss.
The rodeo and fair grounds of the world-famous Calgary Stampede were also swamped, although Nenshi was optimistic that things would be cleared up in time for the show to open July 5.
Nenshi said Sunday that all the major hotels in the downtown were closed and he advised visitors to plan accordingly.
Premier Alison Redford appointed three associate ministers to take charge of regional reconstruction and recovery. She likened their work to that of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams the Canadian military introduced in Afghanistan
The federal Conservative party had planned to hold a policy convention in Calgary next weekend, but that was postponed.
The mountain town of Canmore was one of the first communities hit when the flooding began on Thursday. Residents there have been allowed to return to 260 evacuated homes, but RCMP say 40 more are too damaged to allow people back.
More than 2,200 Armed Forces personnel are now involved in flood relief efforts, along with seven Griffon and two Cormorant helicopters. Soldiers were helping evacuate an area around Canmore, were sandbagging in Medicine Hat and were assisting in road repairs in Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary.
In High River, the military was assisting RCMP in reaching homes that still hadn’t been checked. Armoured vehicles were churning through submerged streets and Zodiac watercraft were being used to reach the hardest-hit areas.
Water worries were also evident around the Alberta capital. A flood watch was in effect for Edmonton as the North Saskatchewan River and its creeks rose to engulf park green spaces, walking trails and bike paths in the deep river valley snaking through the city. Some sandbagging was being done in low-lying areas.
A state of emergency remained for the town of Devon upstream.