Ms. Austen still can’t talk about the day she returned to her store for the first time after the flood without crying. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just tough. It’s tough to see that and know immediately what it means for you and your family. The long hard slog that you instantly know awaits you.”
This weekend, the Alberta government officially opens a temporary business park not far from downtown, an important milestone of recovery and renewal.
A line of hut-like structures, the business park is where Ms. Austen – along with Jill Patterson, co-owner of Cottonwood Bridal & Formals – are jointly setting up shop. Both had to plunder personal savings accounts to restock their stores. They also have bills to pay even though no money has been coming in. What they need most, the government has not been able to offer: cash.
The pair produce weary smiles when asked what the past three months have been like for them. They talk lovingly of their community, of its people. But they both offer the same hesitant prognosis about what lies ahead.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” Ms. Patterson says. “Many residents will not be able to get flood insurance and none of the businesses will get flood insurance now, either. Once you get any disaster-relief dollars from the government, you’re not getting that again, either. So in the future, 100 per cent of the risk is on the residents and business owners.”
This week, the Alberta government announced legislation to prohibit building in floodways altogether. The province has offered to buy properties at their tax-assessed value. But those who hope for more are unlikely to sell their homes because of their “postal codes,” Ms. Patterson says. “So you’re stuck. You have to stay living here.”
Ms. Austen and her family intend to stay and rebuild their home and business and shattered lives. But a larger commitment to the town depends on efforts beyond temporary business quarters, she says. “The government needs to deal with the river west of here so when the wall of water comes, it’s not coming straight at us,” she says. “People have been calling for this for years and nothing ever gets done. It’s different this time. People are angry about this and want assurances.”
She will not get an argument from Emile Blokland. The outgoing High River mayor had to oversee this crisis while tending to the health of his wife, who in recent weeks suffered a stroke. “It’s been tough,” he says, adding that he has decided not to seek re-election next month. (He is running for a councillor position.)
While he understands that the Alberta government cannot promise that High River will never be flooded again, he does want assurance that the town will never suffer such extraordinary damage. And, like Ms. Austen, he says that requires taking measures upstream.
“No matter how high we build our berms, that’s only 10 per cent of the problem,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the problem is upstream of us.”
The mayor also concurs with citizens who say this flood has jarred the town’s psyche and left many feeling unsettled – waiting to see what mitigation efforts the province is prepared to put in place before making a final decision about their future. Several are putting off repairing their homes until they see a concrete action plan, with definite timelines.
The mayor lost his own business, the River Roadhouse Bar & Grille, situated near a trailer park on the edge of town. He doubts that he will try to reopen it. The basement in his home suffered major damage too, and will need to be replaced. At 60 years old, he says he does not have the energy that is needed to completely rebuild everything he has lost.
“I truly believe that almost all of us in High River love this area, love this community, want to stay and be part of it. But we want to have the confidence that this can’t happen again.”
Upstream, downstream and
Doug Holmes was recently hired by the town for a new role: director of renewal operations. It’s his job to help get High River back on its feet, and to give people in the town the confidence they so badly need.
Right now, Mr. Holmes is in the process of hiring staff to oversee rebuilding. That is, professionals to supervise reparations to city infrastructure and dispense and account for the vast sums of money being handed over by the province to pay for it all. That sum is currently $50-million. But the town has already spent half of that in the first three months, and the mayor says he anticipates that the total cost will “go much higher.”