In the community hardest hit by massive floods that have kept much of southern Alberta in a state of emergency, anger among the uprooted is growing – even as the town promised it will announce a plan Friday to start allowing High River residents back home.
Large swaths of the town are still under water from the flood that hit June 20, and High River remains under a mandatory evacuation order, preventing residents from picking up possessions or evaluating the damage to their homes. On Thursday, the RCMP’s decision to seize firearms from homes outraged a number of town residents who confronted police.
“Now what they’re doing is looking for firearms and ammunition. How do they have the right to do that? What does that have to do with the disaster?” said business owner Brenda Lackey, who wants to return home because she doesn’t believe her house is affected by the flood.
Ms. Lackey recounted how residents gathered Thursday at an RCMP barricade where a spike belt had been laid. When they were told the news about the guns, she said she told the RCMP they were trampling on her rights.
“This is martial law. What has happened to our country?” she said in an interview.
However, RCMP Sergeant Patricia Neely said the guns will all be returned. “Firearms that were unsafely stored in plain sight were seized for safekeeping,” she said.
Town officials also said they would lay out a detailed re-entry plan for the town’s 13,000 residents by Friday. Residents will be allowed back in stages as areas are deemed safe.
But from Highway 2, parts of High River look more like a lake than a town. Some homes are still submerged in filthy water, bridges are unstable, and debris – boats, power lines, smashed vehicles – is scattered around town. Sinkholes are also a major concern.
“We’ll put this town back together again,” said Mayor Emile Blokland, speaking to reporters at the town’s emergency centre, located in a high school.
But reassurances from town and provincial officials were met with cynicism by those who had waited seven days for any word about the state of their homes.
“We’ve been told all week they have a plan to have a plan,” said Cam Crawford, who has set up a Facebook page to bring together the displaced.
“We need to get into our homes – and we need to have them remediated.”
Displaced residents now have the option of temporarily living in apartments at the University of Lethbridge. Many are staying with friends or family, some are in hotels or temporary shelters in nearby towns’ community halls, and a trailer park with 30 families has sprung up at a truck stop between High River and Calgary. Marg Parkhouse, her husband and two young adult children moved in next to the truck stop after buying a trailer for $6,000.
“Right now, we’re really numb,” said Ms. Parkhouse, sitting outside her trailer. “We can’t grieve, we can’t mourn – we’re in limbo. We want to see our house.”
On Thursday, the provincial government said it was giving the town of High River an immediate $50-million to help deal with the emergency. It also handed out the first of its preloaded debit cards – $1,250 per adult and $500 per child – to High River residents who can’t return to their homes to help pay for the costs of being evacuated. Each person must declare they haven’t been able to go home for a minimum of seven days.
In Nanton, Alta., a small town south of Calgary and away from the main flood zone, old women in walkers, families with young children and people carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from a scorching sun lined up to get the cards. High River receptionist Lyndsey Brown, 23, and her boyfriend were at the front of the queue.
“There’s no words,” Ms. Brown said. “Everybody just lost everything that they could possibly have, that they worked for.
“It’s horrible. You never really realize it until it happens to you. You hear about it all over the world – disasters and stuff. You think, ‘Oh man, that sucks.’ But people forget about it.”
While many people have pledged to go back to High River and rebuild, heavy-equipment mechanic Dene Parent has already been through flooding in the 1980s, 2005 and now the worst of all. He left his home one week ago by walking through water up to his chest.
“I’ve had enough. I’m getting out,” Mr. Parent said.