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A house in Riverside Villas in High River, Alta., is vacant and severely damaged, as seen on July 23, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
A house in Riverside Villas in High River, Alta., is vacant and severely damaged, as seen on July 23, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Flooded High River should be rebuilt, not relocated Add to ...

High River is a disaster zone. Its downtown is in ruins – shops, banks, even the local barber shop is closed, stripped bare. The town hall, ill-placed on the edge of Highwood River, may be gone forever. Several schools cannot commit to opening when the academic year begins. In one subdivision, new home after new home is papered with the government-issued warning: “Unfit for Human Habitation.”

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This is the town that gave us Joe Clark and W.O. Mitchell. Long before, it served as a staging ground for cattle drives into Calgary, 65 kilometres to the north, and it evolved into a mix of commuter communities and food-processing plants. A month after the floods in late June, parts of the town are off-limits, and its very existence is in question. Thelma Graham, a young mother, thinks she will never live in High River again. Her house, which she figures is no longer worth her $400,000 mortgage, is a no-go zone, as clean-up crews from Ontario (welcome to Alberta’s labour shortage) tear apart her basement. “How many people are going to declare bankruptcy?” she asked, while itemizing a curbside of possessions, all ruined, from a desktop computer to her two teenagers’ sports gear. She expects her five-year-old house, which saw water surge to the basement ceiling, will need to be razed, and hopes to move to higher ground in Okotoks, 18 kilometres away; those who hope to rebuild the neighbourhood, and town, are dreaming: “Everyone can see common sense, except the government.”

Shock has given way to anger – not the best mood for the billion-dollar decisions that Alberta is facing in High River. Should every damaged house be razed and rebuilt at public expense? Should the saturated town centre be relocated to farmland away from the river? Or should the entire town be moved? And if High River stays, how much flood prevention will be needed to keep the town safe?

While High River has been flooded before – it’s named that for a reason – the destruction this time is like never before. The surge was so great that a spillway built after a previous disaster overflowed and 600 people had to be airlifted out. Emergency responders were impressed that only three lives were lost and that no looting or serious crime occurred.

About a thousand homes and businesses were badly damaged, some sitting askew like broken children’s toys. Every structure in the core has water-lines at the middle of ground-floor windows. Piles of mud, three-feet deep, were deposited on streets, parking lots, parks and fields. The Highwood Golf Course looks as if a rampaging buffalo herd had spent a week there. Trailer parks lie in tatters, while the local radio station is broadcasting from a mobile unit parked outside a fast-food shop. At least a few schools will need to be gutted, stripped of their drywall and furnishings, to eradicate mould, which is normally a stranger in these dry parts.

Many distraught residents want to move to higher ground, and have businesses and public services relocate with them. The emotional need for a new start is understandable. And insurance companies may not be willing to touch High River properties any time soon. For government, accommodating the High River population may be easier in established communities such as Okotoks, where existing schools and health centres can be expanded much more cheaply than the cost of building new ones elsewhere.

Les Rempel, a home-builder who was the town’s mayor from 2004 to 2010, makes a very rough estimate that, to relocate the whole town, roughly 6,000 households would have to be moved at an average cost of $400,000 each, say, $2.5-billion to $3-billion. Add a similar amount for infrastructure in the broad sense, and the cost of a new town could be $6-billion – a vast sum, in any case. Estimates from the province are not yet available.

Moreover, the history of compulsory human relocation is not a happy one. Perhaps the only clear case of moving a whole town in an advanced economy is Malmberget, in northern Sweden, which sits on top of an iron mine that is threatening the town’s very stability – a long-term, fraught, complex project that is still in progress.

No one yet knows the damage to High River’s infrastructure, but much of it should be reparable. Several corners of the town were not destroyed; even Right Honourable Joe Clark School, just a block from where the RCMP staged many boat rescues, is said to be fit for a September school opening. Yes, hundreds of houses may need to be knocked down, but their land may be salvageable, if additional flood barriers are installed. Some neighbourhoods should be located away from flood-ways, and further work will be needed to protect the town. That would be cheaper than acquiring, or expropriating, new land elsewhere. Moreover, the city’s biggest employers are back in business, and won’t want to shift.

The culture of southern Alberta does not lend itself to any form of state coercion. At the height of the floods, hundreds of residents refused to leave High River. Many rose up against an RCMP effort to confiscate weapons from abandoned houses (hundreds more co-operated). If the province has any serious thoughts about moving the town, it would have to think doubly hard about the free spirits it would need to confront. As a popular saying in the town now goes: “100 years to build the town, two days to destroy it and 10 days to get it back on its feet.”

It’s more likely years before High River will be fully back on its feet, but the town should make sure those feet are planted in the same area. High River can remain High River, yet never be as vulnerable again.

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