Waiting out the High River flood

The text from my sister made my heart drop: ‘Parents’ house flooded. U been watching the news?’
Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - Boats lay in a pile along a set of twisted train tracks in the town of High River, AB on Tuesday June 25, 2012 after powerful flood waters pushed them blocks from the water’s edge. Much of the town is still underwater after it suffered its worst flood in recorded history last Thursday. Some 15,000 residents are still not allowed to return home. Photo by Chris Bolin
Waiting out the flood
Photo by Chris Bolin

A lake of stagnant water approximately 1.6 kilometres wide and five kilometres long covers a large portion of eastern High River, Alta. Entire homes are submerged in this new and unwanted lake. It smells of sewage and stubbornly remains, nearly two weeks after the Highwood River flooded, an event that placed the town of 13,000 at the epicentre of the worst flooding the province has ever seen.

When the Highwood River spilled over on Thursday, June 20, it drowned my hometown. I return four days later and the streets where I learned to ride a bicycle resemble a war zone. Helicopters buzz overhead and more than 300 troops, dispatched from Edmonton, patrol the streets in light-armoured vehicles. Armed RCMP officers and sheriffs are posted at every road into town, barring access. “This community is not safe. It’s not going to be safe until we have all our infrastructure in place. It doesn’t matter if you live in a dry area or if you live in this area behind us—you can’t come back until we make it safe,” Mayor Emile Blokland told reporters on the Sunday after the flood, as he stood in front of a no-U-turn sign that was all but submerged in water.

While residents in Calgary, Canmore and Medicine Hat—areas that were also flooded—are well into their cleanup, many areas of High River are still deemed unsafe. Thousands of residents remain displaced. Others are only now being allowed back into the town they call home.

The Highwood River rose fast, faster than anyone had ever seen before. That’s what any of High River’s residents will say when they’re asked. By 10 a.m. on June 20, the Highwood River had spilled its banks in the southwest part of town, where it flows between a golf course and a wooded area next to some houses. On the south bank, it turned a swampy creek into a rushing river. It needed still more room, and the river spilled its brown, mucky water over the walking path and around the trunks of a towering cluster of cottonwood trees, one of which may still harbour deep grooves from a child’s rope swing—my rope swing.

That was about the time Colleen Fennell parked her Toyota RAV4 five houses down from my childhood home, a grey two-storey house with a wraparound veranda, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. She was watching the house while my parents took their holiday trailer to Kelowna, B.C., to visit my stepsister and her husband. Fennell heard a flood warning on the radio while she was working in the kitchen at her bed and breakfast, just west of town. Knowing my parents’ home was next to the river, she thought she would move some valuables to higher ground, just in case. The house had seen minor flooding twice before.

When Fennell arrived and saw water streaming up over the walking path and onto 8th Street, she alerted Michael Brown, a neighbour halfway up the block, asking him why town workers weren’t there with sandbags. In previous floods, the town—working with two or three days’ notice—had sandbagged the end of the street, preventing major damage. The conversation with the neighbour took all of five minutes, maybe less. “I parked in dry [land], and now the water was six inches up the wheels,” Fennell says.

Brown, who works at the nearby High River Hospital, had more warning than his neighbours. At 9:15 a.m., a co-worker told him to go home and empty his basement. Brown was home before 10 a.m. and saw some water at the end of the street. In his family’s 16 years in their house, it had never flooded, but he went into the basement and started pulling up his son’s guitars anyway. Twenty minutes later, he stepped outside. “And holy, man, all of a sudden, the water was halfway up the street,” Brown recalls. Adrenalin pumping, he began to think seriously about what to save, hauling up the box of Christmas ornaments and his grandmother’s photo album.

Fennell moved her SUV up the block and ran toward my parents’ house, where it soon became apparent that all the town’s sandbags wouldn’t be able to help. As she moved back to the spot where she had parked not 10 minutes earlier, the water was now up to her knees. Fennell hopped up onto a tree stump in a neighbour’s yard to consider what to do next. “I look toward your house and the water isn’t up to the front porch yet, but it’s definitely to the first step. And it’s swirling—it’s fast. I think: ‘To hell with Alice’s vinyl records collection! It can drown.’ ” Fennell then quickly bolted from near the river. She spotted a neighbour with two small children and told them to get out fast. She hopped into her SUV and drove to higher ground.

Brown backed his Toyota Corolla—loaded with the family’s white German shepherd, Lewis—down the driveway where water was now pooling. “I glanced into my rear-view mirror and I could see the water coming over the berm.” That same water began pouring into the basement windows of my childhood home, destroying my mom’s record collection, boxes of family photos and my pint-sized dance tutus that my mom sewed by hand more than two decades ago and still couldn’t bear to part with.

In the white bungalow across the street from my parents’ home, Anita Halas was getting ready for work. Her shift at Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown High River didn’t start until 2 p.m., but she was already in her uniform. Her husband, Larry, had noticed the river level rising and went out to get sandbags. In the 2005 flood, one of their basement walls partially collapsed and they wanted to be ready this time. “I was in the kitchen and I heard gushing,” Halas recalls. “It was just like a waterfall.” She ran downstairs. The sewer pipe had burst. As she rushed back upstairs, Halas heard glass shatter. Water began to pour in through a basement window.

Larry Halas arrived home in his truck. “You’re still here? We’ve got to go now!” he told his wife. Halas put on her running shoes, grabbed her purse and stepped out the back door. The water was up to her knees. As Anita and Larry Halas drove to their daughter’s home to tell her to get herself and her three young children packed and out, the overflowing Highwood River poured into their basement and garage. The muddy brown water washed away photos of the Halas’s son, Nathanial. Nate, as I knew him, was my first boyfriend. I was 16 the summer we started dating. He was 17. We spent hours together floating down the Highwood River on inner tubes. The water ran low that summer and we often had to get off our inner tubes and walk. A year after we broke up, Nate drowned in the same Highwood River that now swept away the family pictures and his wallet that his mother had kept. “That’s all I have left of him,” Halas says from her daughter’s home in the neighbouring town of Okotoks, where she has become one of the thousands displaced—and devastated—by the flood.

By 11 a.m., Fred Stegmeier, a 30-year EMS employee, drove the half-dozen blocks from the hospital where he was working to check on his house, a brown split-level at the opposite end of the street from my parents’ home. When Stegmeier saw water up to his front deck, he turned around and drove back to the hospital. “Just so many emotions went through my head,” Stegmeier says. “We had not flooded before. We were always the ones that helped others.”

A truck pushed into a farmer's field by flood waters southwest of High River, Alta. (Emily Senger/Maclean's)

As my former neighbours grabbed what they could and left 8th Street, the place where my mom and dad custom-built their home 25 years ago, the scene was repeated again and again. The Highwood River pushed downtown, where people were rescued from rooftops by boat, tractor and dump truck. It doubled back toward the east, with a current strong enough to float trucks, and their terrified occupants who were trying to flee.

I was on vacation in Victoria when my phone started buzzing. The text message from my sister in Calgary made my heart drop: “Parents’ house flooded. U been watching the news?” The next text was worse, a picture of the downtown movie theatre surrounded by brown water. During the past two major floods in High River, in 1995 and 2005, the water hadn’t been nearly that high. By the time my sister texted me, the town had declared a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order.

RCMP say approximately 300 residents didn’t leave. Bryce Hubbard, 27, lives in Okotoks, but travelled to High River with his younger brother to help his mom save his childhood home. He brought two gas-powered generators and an electric pump. “If we’re not here to put gas in the pumps, the water is just going to come up to the ceiling,” Hubbard told me over the phone on the Monday after the flood.

Besides fuelling the pumps, Hubbard offered forbidden glimpses of the inside to those on the outside. On Saturday, as parts of town started to dry out, he texted my sister a picture of our family home. There it was, standing tall on a lawn littered with mud and debris. He says there was water up to the first landing in the basement. While everyone in my family was relieved to see the picture, it made the wait even worse. We knew the house was standing, not floating in pieces somewhere downstream as we feared, and we were ready to get back in and start pumping water out of the basement.

As my family waited, everyone dealt with stress differently. I worked 14-hour days for Maclean’s, touring the devastation and then trying to make sense of it all. My parents parked their holiday trailer at the family farm out of town, where my mother alternated between sadness and worry. My stepsister lost her appetite. My stepfather, a mild-tempered man who never swears, dropped at least two F-bombs in the past few days. He’s angry at the mayor and threatened to drive a tractor into town to start pumping water out of the basement. My sister says she’ll go with him. Their threats—jokes at first—sounded more real with each passing day.

The uncertainty of what’s on the other side of the police barriers is tough for everyone on the outside. On the Sunday after the flood, police arrested a drunk 24-year-old High River man who demanded access, then threatened RCMP at a checkpoint with a knife. Three more people were arrested in the following days as they tried to sneak into town. By Thursday and Friday, a week after the flood, a group of approximately 50 residents protested at a police barrier on the northwest side of town. With residents rapidly running out of patience, the town announced a staged re-entry plan on June 28—nine days after the flood. Residents in the least damaged areas were due to return first. Those whose homes are still under standing water in the east could be out of their homes for a month or more. By the time they’re let back in, they may not have anything to return to.

Flooded homes in High River's Hampton Hills neighbourhood on June 29, 2013. (Emily Senger/Maclean's)

Those who are allowed back into town face months of cleanup and heartache. On June 29, residents in the northwest were the first permitted to return. The rodeo grounds served as a welcome centre, where residents lined up for an hour or more in the dusty parking lot as the sun beat down. When they reached the front of the line, a volunteer handed each of them a return package and informed them of their colour, as determined by a home inspector. Everyone was hoping for green: a green designation means minimal or no damage and a habitable home. Next is yellow, which means there is some damage, but the home is habitable. Orange is worse, meaning the home has extensive damage that needs repairs before it can be habitable. Finally, red indicates a home is severely damaged—either its structure or electrical systems, or both, are in bad shape—it may not be salvageable.

Some residents walked through the dusty parking lot smiling. For others, the news was dire. Christine Doepel emerged from the welcome centre in tears. “I was expecting our house to be yellow, but it’s orange,” she said. Doepel isn’t alone. In the northwest section of town, there are 1,817 buildings, mainly residential. Of those buildings, 639 received a green rating, 318 were deemed yellow, 719 were orange and 141 red. For those who got good news, there is something of a survivors’ guilt. “There are going to be so many red dots and orange dots. I feel for them,” says Robert Tipple, a business owner whose own northwest home wasn’t damaged. He’s still waiting to learn the fate of his pizza shop, which sits near the edge of the lake on High River’s east side.

As I write, I’m back in Toronto and my parents are standing in that line, waiting for the colour code that will determine how the next few months play out. We think the house is probably orange. We’re not ready for it to be red. I get a call a few hours later. It’s red.

“It’s way worse than we thought it would be,” says my mom. When my parents, my sister and her fiancé enter the house, they find the basement ceiling on the floor. The deep freezer is tipped over and there is rotting meat everywhere. Mud and sewage coats everything. On the veranda—the same one where I took some wedding pictures two years ago—the mud is so thick that there are green things growing out of it. There is clearly damage to the main-floor office, which is closest to the river. Water seeped under both the front and back doors. The upstairs, the only place that looks like the home I remember, is caked with muddy footprints from the emergency responders who searched for anyone in distress a week ago. “I don’t even know where to begin,” my mom says. Those same comments will echo through the town in the days to come, as thousands more open their front doors and step into their own disaster zone.

Alberta Flood Relief Rogers and Fido customers who are interested in making a $5 donation to help those in the affected regions can do so on their mobile phones by sending a free text message with the word “ABHELP” to 4664. One hundred per cent of proceeds will go to the Canadian Red Cross.

High River residents are seeking volunteers to help with clean up. The province is organizing buses for Calgary residents who want to volunteer. More details on that here.