Updated: As river peaks, Medicine Hat turns to recovery

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. – The river that flows through Medicine Hat peaked Monday, but officials said the southeastern Alberta city was still in flood mode and residents would not be allowed to return to their homes for at least a few days.

Ron Robinson, director of emergency measures, said floodwaters from the South Saskatchewan River were still threatening protective berms.

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

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

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

About 1,000 homes have been 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.

“We anticipate it will probably be a few days before we can actually be a lot more mobile. We’re asking patience.

“I know they 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 would be turned away, he said.

“They will be stopped.”

The flooding, 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.

Two of the three bridges that connect the city’s north and south were closed Sunday over fears the river would overrun them, but Robinson said they would be opening later in the day Monday.

Robinson got an aerial view of the flooding Sunday.

“You’d almost think we’re in the muddy waters of the Mississippi right now that surrounds a lot of these homes,” he said. “It’s actually quite tragic in some areas.”

The closed sections of the city were being patrolled by police to guard against possible looting.

In Calgary, people were returning to assess the damage and begin the long cleanup.

Residents have been warned there is still a long way to go before the city and its downtown will be back to normal, although crews are working hard to clean up and restore utilities.

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.