Some of the money has gone to increasing city staff to deal with disaster recovery, necessary in part because current employees needed time off to deal with their own issues related to the flood. The mayor has hired about 60 people to help out so far. Mr. Holmes needs to do further recruiting, but he says it’s not easy finding top-class people to come to High River on short notice for an assignment that might last only a couple of years.
Most importantly, at least in terms of shoring up people’s faith in the town, it’s Mr. Holmes’s job to make sure concrete and visible measures are being taken to allay people’s fears that this could happen again next year.
That includes working on berms and dikes, as well as an effort announced this week to dismantle a 100-year-old Canadian Pacific rail bridge – the town’s most recognizable landmark. Removal of the little-used, 500-ton bridge could double the flowing capacity of the river in coming years.
But Mr. Holmes also understands that none of that will satiate people concerned about what is upstream, where the waters that course down the Highwood River begin to pick up steam and volume. It’s the same problem faced by many communities flooded in June.
“I think there has to be a Southern Alberta solution,” he says. “And everything I’ve heard from the provincial government is that they’re committed to a Southern Alberta solution. So there’s work that needs to be done upstream and downstream and there’s work that needs to be done in the town immediately.”
Mr. Holmes also understands that people in High River want problems fixed immediately. But given the number of things that need to be done to lessen the flood risk, and the complexity of much of that work, the likelihood of it all being done before next spring’s runoff is probably slim.
He appreciates that some people are holding off on making a final decision on staying in High River until they see what the town and city do to prevent further catastrophes. If some do not see action soon, they may leave. At the same time, he says, you cannot compromise the quality of the work in the interest of speed.
“Everyone will have to make that evaluation for themselves,” he says. “Everything I’ve heard so far tells me the government of Alberta is committed to making sure the town of High River comes out of this experience in a whole fashion. That it continues to be a good place to invest, a good place to live, a good place to raise your family and a good place to retire.”
However High River comes out of this experience, the 2013 flood won’t be forgotten any time soon. The town is represented provincially by Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who could well make the 2016 election a referendum on the governing Progressive Conservatives’ handling of the devastation here and elsewhere.
She controversially decided to hold a town hall meeting here this month to allow residents a chance to vent their anger over the actions of the RCMP – which has left the province on the hook for damage estimated to be in the low millions. The move by Ms. Smith prompted Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths to call her an “[unprintable] embarrassment.” He later apologized for his use of an expletive but not the sentiment.
But back at Evelyn’s café, Hubert Aumeier is trying to stay optimistic.
He sees signs that the community is returning to normal. Grass is coming back. The roads are mostly clear of mud and garbage. This weekend, the town wraps up the Canadian Hot Air Balloon Championships, which draws thousands of visitors. And the Ministry of Education insists that school portables have been delayed by weather, not politics, with the last few set for delivery to High River within a couple of days.
Indeed, there has not been a moment when Mr. Aumeier has thought that his future does not belong here. “I’m already getting requests to hold Christmas parties here,” he says, smiling. “How could I leave?”
By the numbers
$6-billion: Expected cost of June flooding in Alberta
$1.7-billion: The Alberta tab for insurance companies
$50-million: Advance relief funds sent to High River
$1.57-billion: The insurance bill from the 1998 ice storm in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada
$850-million: The cost of this summer’s Toronto flooding to insurers
$65-million: Total losses from Hurricane Sandy in the United States in 2012