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.
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.”
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