Frustration in High River between those who stayed and those who didn't

HIGH RIVER, Alta. – Kelly Dennis is unapologetic about disobeying a mandatory evacuation order and remaining in her southern Alberta home while most residents were forced out to high ground as flood waters raged in.

“We saved it,” she said, riding her bike down a water-scarred street in one of High River’s harder hit neighbourhoods on Tuesday.

“We had a generator pumping. I would say if we didn’t save it, it would have been about three to four feet.”

The lockdown of High River, the hardest hit community in last week’s flooding, has been a source of tension.

The vast majority of the town’s 13,000 residents left when asked last week and now want back in. About 300, like Dennis, stayed and police have so far opted not to force them out.

On Tuesday, the town’s mayor beseeched residents demanding to return to their homes to have some understanding for the monumental recovery task that faces the flooded southern Alberta community.

Emile Blokland said people need to realize that the water that engulfed the town last week bore little resemblance to a normal flood.

“What you don’t understand is we don’t have a flood. We have a disaster,” Blokland said. “Floods are very easy to deal with — water comes, water goes, and then we clean up afterwards.

“This is a major disaster we are dealing with. It’s at the same level as the Slave Lake fire that devastated that community. That’s what we are dealing with and that is the major reason we cannot have residents return to the town of High River.”

The wildfires that swept through Slave Lake in 2011 destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. In that disaster, evacuees were put on buses and driven around the town so that they could safely inspect the damage.

Not an option here, said Blokland.

“That will hamper our efforts,” the mayor said. “We need to keep the town as completely free of people that don’t need to be there as much as possible.

“We can’t have more people in the community. It is as simple as that.”

Provincial officials said 80 per cent of High River remained without services and the waste-water treatment plant wasn’t working.

“We do not have sanitary sewer. We have no water for those folks. We have no utilities for those folks,” an animated Blokland said at an afternoon update.

“When they get here, we have no gas for their cars. We don’t have a grocery store open. We don’t have the medical centre. We don’t have protective services for them. We don’t have a drugstore for them. No business in town is open at this moment.

“It is not safe to be in our community. When it is safe, we will let everybody in as quickly as possible in an organized manner.”

The media was allowed into the community for a tour Tuesday.

The damage in areas near downtown was extensive. Vehicles sat in mud up to their fenders and a deep layer of silt covered driveways. Boats were piled on top of each other on the side of the road. A train track laid twisted on the ground. Pieces of trees clumped together in piles.

RCMP Insp. Garrett Woolsey said police-led search teams had cleared 4,700 residences and buildings. Dive teams from Saskatchewan were checking 30 houses too unsafe to enter any other way. Some were completely submerged.

“This was extraordinarily dangerous work assisted ably by the Canadian Armed Forces,” Woolsey said. “I can’t tell you … how devastating it is in that community right now and in some sectors it is only getting worse because there is standing water in many, many places.”

The people who stayed were making mater worse, said Dave Galea of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

Police said eight people who stayed behind, including two distraught women who indicated their situations were “quite desperate,” have had to be rescued so far.

“They are now starting to contribute to the problem,” said Galea.

“They are running out of supplies. They have been isolated in the town for a number of days now,” 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.”

Several High River residents have been camped out at the emergency evacuation centre in Blackie, east of High River.

Tom Dekelver and his wife Kathy were hopeful they will be able to return home soon and are miffed at the people still there.

“That’s pretty dumb. It’s just making it worse for everybody else. It’s just not smart,” he said. “We understand you’ve got to get out of the way so they can get things back so we can go home.”

John Gosling was also is critical of individuals who play by a different set of rules.

“I think that’s terrible. They should have got out because they’re just holding stuff up,” Gosling said. “Whether they are dry or not they should have moved out.”

But Dennis isn’t sorry she stayed.

“Mould doesn’t occur right away. It’s not letting people back in their homes to actually fend and get the water out of their basements within the 48 hours that’s the problem,” she said. “If they’re really worried about safety, how about pumping out some of this water?”

Alberta Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, who lives in High River, said it was time to let people back, primarily to areas that weren’t seriously damaged and are safe.

“Get people back into the town and do it today or in the next couple of days,” Smith told The Canadian Press.

She said much of the town was untouched by the flood and she actually defied the mandatory evacuation order for four days, staying in High River to help rescue pets.

She said she understands the frustration of the displaced population.

“People are at their wit’s end and I can understand why,” Smith said. “You let that still water stay there with three days of heat cooking it, you’re going to end up seeing mould and mildew going up the walls.”

It was a somewhat more optimistic situation further east in Medicine Hat where officials were allowing the first of about 10,000 evacuees to return to their properties. But Ron Robinson, emergency measures director for the city of more than 60,000, tried to mute expectations.

“Be prepared to see some extraordinary sights,” Robinson said. “Certainly our hearts go out to those people who are going to see a lot of damage. Just be prepared mentally to accept that.”

He said inspectors were going in with homeowners to assess whether their houses were livable. And some people might have to turn back if homes were still wet or lacking utilities, he said.

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 switches 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.

“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,” Burrell said.

The Calgary Zoo was trying to cope with sick and stressed-out animals. The animal care director said staff risked their lives on the weekend to stop two hippos from escaping into the swollen Bow River.

Jake Veasey said floodwaters in the hippo enclosure rose high enough for the dangerous herbivores to swim out. One got into a building and had to be corralled with cinder blocks.

The zoo’s giraffes were up to their bellies in water and weren’t coping well with the cold and stress, he said.

In the mountains, where the deluge first hit, the Trans-Canada Highway between Cochrane and Banff remained closed as the July 1 long weekend approached. That meant significant detours for anyone wanting to go west past Banff or east towards Calgary.