On June 20th I was enjoying an outing at the Waterton Wildflower Festival with two of my sisters (Cheryl and Connie) and a friend (Judy) when word began to arrive that all was not right at home in High River. Being old flood pros, Judy and I figured it was a little "high water" which was understandable given the amount of rain that had been falling. As the day progressed and we heard that people were being evacuated from areas that were not traditional flood zones, we realized that this was not the little high water we had assumed it to be and we decided it was time to head for home. Little did we know it would be almost two weeks before we actually made it there.
As we left Waterton we began to get an inkling of what we were headed into. By Claresholm our cell phones were beginning to loose their signal as Telus was hit with the calamity and the extreme demand that was being placed on the system with people trying desperately to contact their loved ones. We learned that Judy's daughter in law, who had been at work at the Manor, had been evacuated to Nanton - What the Hell? Nanton? What was going on? The evacuation centre was suppose to be at Highwood High School in town.
We stopped at the chaos that was the Nanton Evac Centre and Judy was able to locate Ramona, I don't know how she found her so quickly it looked like pandemonium there. While we waited we heard the #2 highway had been closed south of High River - there would be no getting home that way.
We fell into a line of traffic headed east in the hopes of reaching the Blackie Evac Centre to meet up with my husband Rob, who I thought might have headed out there when the evacuation order was given to clear out of town. As we arrived in Blackie I realized right away this was not where he would be and we headed for Calgary. We had left my sister Connie's car in High River when we left town the day before and there would be no picking it up for her to get home in. So leaving behind Connie's car for what would be an extended stay, the five of us headed north. There were rumours running rampant that the #2 was cut off north of High River as well and while I doubted the news the thought of bridges we would be required to cross to get to the city made me think we would be wiser to head east once again and cross the Bow River at the Carseland bridge.
Eventually I had a text from Rob letting our kids and myself know he was safe and sound at a Tim Horton's in Calgary. He had stopped for a coffee and to use their WiFi. He had been doing sewer backup damage control when told to leave town, he packed a bag, grabbed our dog and hit the road. We would meet up at my sister Cheryl's house where we would become extended house guests. Judy and Ramona were dropped off in Calgary as well where they met up with her family for how long we did not know, but in our wildest dreams we never thought it would be as long as it was.
For the next few days we stayed glued to the television coverage of the ongoing devastation in Banff, Canmore, Morley, Bragg Creek, Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Calgary and High River knowing what was carrying on down the Bow towards Siksika and Medicine Hat.
By Monday the desire to get home and get to work on possible damages kicked in. Still no time line on when we would be allowed back. We drove out to Turner Valley to check out the damage there, we were confused, if High River was anywhere similar to what we were seeing elsewhere it made no sense that we were being kept away from our home.
Rob is a school Principal and he still had work to do so he was now commuting from NE Calgary. If we had ever considered city living those thoughts would have been squashed by the ugly commute he was required to make for the next week.
Nine days after the evacuation people were finally being allowed back to their homes - but only on a limited, section by section basis. I'm not sure I agree with the approach that was taken with re-entry on such a restricted basis but I understand that decisions were being made on the fly and that it was probably done to try and secure the remainder of the town from unsavory types but that did not lessen the frustration felt by homeowners knowing that in order to minimize damages to their homes fast action was required. By this time we had reliable information that our home was untouched by flood waters but what awaited us that may have come in through the sewer system left us feeling anxious, frustrated, helpless and increasingly angry.
One bright spot in the wait was that we had time to return to Waterton to enjoy the wildflowers without the rain that had dampened my earlier visit there. This time in the company of my husband, we stayed at the Prince of Wales Hotel with a view of the village and the lake - it was lovely. For bits of time that weekend we were able to forget what was happening at home and that was wonderful because soon enough we would see just what had happened to our lovely little town we moved to 36 years ago.
I got my first look at the devastation when I went to lend a hand to my friend Judy who was allowed access to her home two days before us. It was - shocking, awful, ugly and so terribly sad.
Then finally it was our turn. All residents were to check in with the "Welcome Centre" upon returning to town. There we would receive the news - would we be Green - good! Yellow - not so good but nothing that can't be handled with a little work, Orange - worse, lots of work to be done and personal loss. The worst news - Red! We were not expecting Red or Orange, we hoped for Green but found out we were Yellow. It could have been worse, much worse. It could have been like some neighbours with 4 inches of crap throughout the basement but the work Rob was able to do before the evacuation order came prevented that. His idea to stuff our drains with towels and put tubs of sewer water on top (about 80 - 100 lbs worth) probably prevented major damages. I hope the insurance company appreciates the work he did - I know I do.
Throughout our enforced stay away from our home one of the most frustrating issues was that of communication. In the age of social media there was really no reason that the residents could not be kept informed of the reasons for not being allowed back. As the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words so if we had been shown the state of the infra structure like roads I'm sure some of the angst people felt could have been minimized. It was after all, our town! As the days dragged on the town's Facebook page improved and useful, pertinent information was eventually shared.
So now we have been back home for 18 days. Much has happened in that time. First and foremost we have become grandparents. What a marvelous bright spot in a not so wonderful time. I will write a blog about that experience a little later - when I have digested it. For our town day by day it is being put back into place. Day by day people are able to return to live in their homes. We hear this family or those friends are moving back and it takes the town one step further down the road of many, many steps to recovery. Not so, unfortunately, for the residents of the Hamptons who are now locked out once again due to mold issues.
As we settled into post flood life in High River we began to notice an interesting phenomenon - we would wake early, 6:00 a.m. to the sounds of heavy trucks moving about town. The sounds of the pumps moving water out of Sunshine Lake and Sunshine Lake Extension were constant but only heard as an individual sound throughout the night when the trucks weren't running. Around about 8:00 the army of volunteers would start to arrive. It was rush hour like we had never seen before. By mid-morning the roads would be clogged with vac trucks sucking out basements and sewer lines, volunteers and homeowners would be busy mucking out basements creating massive piles of garbage on front lawns that would begin to spill out onto the road, fridges and freezers that had been taped up with their contents rotting due to a lack of electricity for 2 weeks were lining most roads in town waiting for the flat decks to pick them up and haul them away.
Just where was all this insane amount of garbage going? To the Foothills Regional Waste Management Facility or course. There was a huge bottleneck there that resulted in trucks having to wait hours to off-load their cargo. The landfill road was to be avoided if traveling to Okotoks. At the landfill every truck heading in to deliver a load had to be weighed and again as they left the facility they were weighed so the government could be billed accordingly. It is estimated that the equivalent of ten years worth of household trash would be delivered to the landfill for each and every home in High River. That means the present site's lifespan has been cut by ten years - another casualty of this calamity.
Just as the town woke up to trucks and cars arriving - at the end of the day the process was reversed. Many of the big trucks would be parked at a heavy equipment staging area and the operators would join the exodus of volunteers heading home. Joining them would be many homeowners who were unable to live in their homes in their present condition. Back they would go to whatever living arrangements they had found for themselves. These were the lucky ones. They were the ones who owned an RV and had a place to park it. They were the ones with families in the surrounding area. What about the ones who were not so fortunate? They continued to live in the evacuation centers, on cots for beds, with no privacy and few possessions.
In those early evenings we drove around town, checking up on friends homes while digesting the reality what was around us. It was eerily quiet. Such a turnaround from the hive of activity hours before. I started taking a few shots here and there and I thought I really should be documenting all of this but how do you do that when your heart is really not into it? We were almost a ghost town with 75% of the population not living in town through the night.
We were so happy when Tim Horton's managed to set up their own water supply and re-open for business. Another small step on the road of many steps but one that was greatly appreciated. Then Subway re-opened and then Co-op and another and another, one by one, businesses that were not in the downtown core where the devastation was greater, but signs of a return to the "new normal" nonetheless.
The work load faced by townsfolk was and is daunting. It is work better suited to strong young men but there were not enough of them to do it all. Rob went off to help friends with their cleanup and I was left feeling rather futile when the idea came to have different people working on their properties over for supper. The idea being that they needed to get away from the muck and the worry and sit down to a regular dinner, we were able to do that several times before we had the opportunity to host some volunteers from Red Deer who our son was working with in town. David, our eldest, had come from Red Deer to lend a hand in the clean up effort. What a great experience that was, great young people who heard what was happening and took time out of their lives to lend a hand for four days in July to a bunch of strangers down the QEII.
Workers need food! I know the day I helped out Jude I was never so appreciative of lunch than when it arrived after several hours of hot dirty work. I knew I would have to do that myself during the clean up efforts. It was truly humbling to be thanked for a couple of bunwiches, an apple or granola bar and a bottle of water. I was the one thankful for their efforts and yet they were thanking me?
Bit by bit I started to come around and finally one evening I said to Rob that I was ready to take my camera out for an hour before sunset when the traffic had subsided and the frenetic pace of the day had calmed. I'm so glad I did at that time or I never would have got a shot of the twisted mess of railroad tracks that has since been cleaned up and is starting to look somewhat back to it's former state. We toured around for an hour fighting mosquitoes which had hatched by the millions in all the pools and puddles of water left behind from the rains and the flood. I was also glad that I had taken the few shots I did in George Lane park as it is now closed to the public for a cleaning.
Yesterday I walked around downtown with my camera. There is a time when a photo just does not cut it when trying to share an experience like this. Seeing every business, absolutely all businesses spaces empty and stripped to the walls. A photo will not share the aroma, no I should call it what it is - the stink that is everywhere. You don't hear the noise all around you in a photo, the wail of saws, the hum of the massive airmovers and a constant but unidentified pounding.
High River has never had a transit system but we do now. There are three routes that cover the vast majority of the town. I've seen stops at various locations around town and so tomorrow I plan on taking the bus around each of the routes to see what there is to see from that perspective. I am hopeful that each route will only take about an hour to complete and I hope to start about 8:00 a.m.
I have come to a decision with this post - it will be a non-photo blog. It's too long already! But there was so much to share. Tomorrow I will begin putting shots of the disaster together into a posting and I will elaborate on some of the points I touched on here. But for now, for those of you who might read this who do not have a tie to this community it can be very hard to relate to the level of loss that has been experienced. Homes were destroyed, retirements put into question, businesses devastated, jobs lost and any control we thought we had over our lives striped away. In many cases more than one issue per family. Often it was a home lost as well as a business or a job, which in turn put a retirement into question. Years worth of personal memories and mementos were thrown out with the muck and the slime. There may be health implications that will haunt people for the remainder of their lives.
It will be years before this town has been put right. During that time we will fret with every forecast of rain in the spring, we will want to know how high the snow pack in the Highwood watershed is. If we hear of a weather pattern bringing us rain from the northeast and stalling at the mountains we won't sleep because we will be on river watch. There will be questions that need answers on how things were handled throughout this ordeal and I would love to have a voice in that process. But for now writing this has been a healing exercise. If anyone asks me about the flood I will give them a link to this post.
Thank you for all your good wishes, thank you also for your donations to whatever charity you choose for flood support. There are many people here who really need your support now and into the future.
Ta for now,