'We've turned a corner,' Calgary mayor says of floodwater

CALGARY – Much of Calgary remained soaked by floodwater Saturday, but there was some good news — the sun was out, rivers were receding and at least some evacuees were being allowed to return home.

Still, flood officials were warning that nothing would happen quickly and they were urging displaced people to stay away from their neighbourhoods until the city said it was safe.

“Folks, we’ve turned a corner,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

“However, the No. 1 thing that I need to share with all of you is that we’re still in a state of emergency. It’s sunny out, it’s nice out, but we are still in a state of emergency.”

An estimated 75,000 people have been forced from their homes in more than two dozen neighbourhoods along the Bow and Elbow Rivers in the city.

Residents in a section of one of those neighbourhoods — the high ground in Discovery Ridge — have been allowed back.

Officials were hoping to be able to open up portions of six more neighbourhoods that didn’t flood. The names of those neighbourhoods will be posted on the city’s website.

Officials said it would probably be midweek at the earliest before access to the city’s downtown core is fully restored.

The flood has hit some of the city’s iconic structures hard. The 19,000-seat Saddledome, home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames, was flooded up to the 10th row, while water lapped at the roof of the chuckwagon barns at the grounds of the Calgary Stampede, which is scheduled to start in two weeks.

Nenshi has said the city will do everything it can to make sure that the world-renowned party goes ahead.

The federal Conservatives were to hold their convention in the city next weekend, but announced Saturday that it would be postponed to a later date.

“After being in discussions with various authorities regarding the situation, it became clear that holding the national convention at this time would not be in the best interests of the people of Calgary,” said Conservative Party president John Walsh.

Flows on the smaller Elbow River were expected to decrease by 60 per cent over the next 48 hours. Flows on the larger Bow were forecast to go down by 25 per cent over the same period.

Even with the improvement, Nenshi noted that the flow rates were still higher than the last big flood in Calgary eight years ago.

“Remember that these numbers are still four times higher than they were in the floods of 2005, so we’re still dealing with very, very high numbers,” he said.

While the news was promising in Calgary, communities downstream were bracing for their own crisis.

Water levels were rising in Medicine Hat, while officials with Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency were preparing for the possibility of an evacuation order for Cumberland House by Monday.

Medicine Hat declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon, saying it was expecting its river to crest Saturday night. Ten thousand residents in low-lying areas were told to get out of their homes by Saturday morning.

“We’re planning for the worst,” Mayor Norm Boucher told the Medicine Hat News.

“We have to make sure that people are safe, and if we can protect some properties we will do that, but water and electricity are so important. People have to live and people will come back … we’ll come through this.”

Lethbridge was also preparing for high waters, but no evacuations were ordered and radio station CJOC reported that a local state of emergency was lifted Saturday morning.

The Alberta government has estimated that roughly 100,000 people have been affected by flooding across the southern part of the province.

High River, southwest of Calgary, was one of the hardest-hit areas.

Mounties confirmed Friday that three bodies had been found in the Highwood River near the community. The bodies of a man and a woman were recovered Friday.

The third body — a woman — was located Friday but couldn’t be recovered. RCMP Insp. Garrett Woolsey says that happened Saturday morning near Turner Valley. It was believed to be the body of a woman who disappeared after her mobile home was swept away on Thursday.

Woolsey said they’ve received reports of a fourth body being swept down the river, but police have not been able to confirm that.

It is estimated that half the people in the town of 13,000 experienced flooding in their homes. Roads and bridges have been swamped, police have cut off access to most of the town and helicopters have been circling overhead. Cars lie submerged in water, abandoned, while backhoes work in vain to push water back from houses.

Town spokeswoman Joan Botkin said the public is no longer allowed to enter the community. She said the lockdown was to ensure property is safe from looters.

“The town is closed off to all public … everybody,” said Botkin.

“That is mainly for security purposes. We have to ensure that people’s properties are safe because they had to leave in a hurry. We need to know that their property and the property of business owners are safe.”

Only emergency personnel are allowed in High River and about 390 soldiers were joining Mounties in a door-to-door search of residences.

Botkin said she realizes that is frustrating for people.

“Residents can’t get into town and they’re worried, they’re anxious, many people are worried about their pets right now.”

Botkin said a number of animals have been rescued and taken to a local kennel. A plan is being formulated so people will know their pets are there and they can find out if they are safe.

The search of homes has been focused primarily on the town’s northwest. Botkin said searchers can’t get into all areas.

“The water is still too high.”

There are residents who are refusing to leave and have decided to wait things out until the mandatory evacuation is lifted.

“We have strenuously urged them to please go. They have no water, no sewer, they’re going to be running out of food soon,” she said.

There is still a serious problem with High River’s wastewater system. The main pump station is under water. The water treatment plant is OK, but the wells have been compromised and a boil-water advisory is in place.

The mountain town of Canmore was also hit hard.

Resident Wade Graham was in one of the flood-stricken areas and painted a bleak picture Friday evening.

“The water’s not running anymore. We don’t have gas. It’s kind of like life has become pretty basic now. You know, how do you find food, are you sleeping well and are you warm?” he said.

“We’ve got supplies here, but depending on how long this lasts, it could be entertaining for sure.”