It’s just before noon at Evelyn’s Memory Lane Café and every seat is taken. Families crush into the diner’s red leather booths while burly construction men occupy the swivel stools at the counter. Servers race across the black and white tiled floor, vainly trying to keep up with the orders.
In a town devastated by the June floods in Alberta, Evelyn’s has become a sanctuary, a place for a shattered community to mourn and offer solace, to share information and gossip and, perhaps most importantly, a place where residents come looking for hope.
“I feel good that I’m able to offer people some comfort,” owner Hubert Aumeier says as he prepares sandwiches in the back kitchen. “I was lucky. Many were not. You see it in their faces. They’re strong people here, but everyone has their breaking point.”
In one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history – expected, by the latest estimates, to have caused $6-billion in damages – High River was ground zero. Located 40 minutes south of Calgary, the town of nearly 13,000 people was to the Alberta floods what the Lower Ninth Ward represented to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the worst-hit area.
On June 20, at least 2,000 cubic metres of water went over the banks of Highwood River every second (more than the usual flow of Niagara Falls). Flood waters then rose to heights of five and six feet, smashing in store windows and destroying everything inside, and either demolishing homes or leaving them unfit for human habitation. Over all, 60 per cent of the town was left under water.
“This was not a one-in-a-hundred event,” Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths says. “This was more like a one in a thousand.”
Since the flood, nearly two billion gallons of water have been pumped from the area in the recovery. More than 2,000 dump trucks of rubble have been carted away. And debris that would fill more than 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools has been dredged from the town’s river system.
But 100 days after the catastrophe, nearly all of the businesses in the downtown core remain closed, most not expected to open for months because of interior damage. More than 1,500 people remain out of their homes – some living in hotels, some in temporary housing. Many residents are still in shock, with more than a few asking themselves if they should stay. “I know there are people who have already left their houses and moved away,” Mr. Aumeier says. “It’s the same for some of the businesses. There are For Rent signs up.”
Among those who remain, nerves are getting frayed. Residents have little hope of flood insurance. They wonder how long it will be before their kids are back in proper classrooms (instead of the local banquet ball, which, principal Dorothy White says, is not an ideal place to teach 430 elementary-school children). There’s also skepticism about political favouritism in relief efforts: Locals point to Calgary’s Elbow Park – a school in Premier Alison Redford’s riding, where students are being accommodated in superior portables. Even trust in the local RCMP is low; mounties busted down the doors to hundreds of homes in the days immediately after the flood while checking residences.
Has enough been done, fast enough?
A low saddle of land
The June 20 calamity was not the first flood to hit this town in recent years, only the worst.
As its name might suggest, High River is susceptible to flooding. A town plan prepared in 1965 described it as a “low saddle of land between the Highwood and Little Bow Rivers.”
Before berms and other mitigation measures were put in place 60 years ago, floods were an almost yearly occurrence. In 1942, citizens fought a rampaging Highwood River not once, but twice. A flood in 2005 was so bad that hundreds of homes were evacuated, and wide swaths of the town were left under four feet or more of water – but even that damage was not anything near this summer’s destruction.
Many of the new subdivisions in High River were built into prairie depressions. While not considered part of a flood plain, these neighbourhoods can fill like a lake when water gets in, which is exactly what happened in Wallaceville and the Hamptons, two of the areas most severely affected in June.
Many people here are sick of the exhausting and often financially devastating jolt to their lives that the floods bring. Joanne Austen has lived in High River for 23 years. She and her husband, Wayne, own Austen Jewellers – which, like virtually all of the stores on 3rd Avenue, was ruined.