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Santa paid a visit to Saddlebrook, where some 500 residents have been living in temporary housing since their town of High River was devastated by floods last June. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Santa paid a visit to Saddlebrook, where some 500 residents have been living in temporary housing since their town of High River was devastated by floods last June. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Alberta floods

For High River residents, maintaining a festive spirit is a difficult task Add to ...

Without a kitchen of her own, Tania Resendiz says what she misses most is cooking, and eating, traditional Mexican food at Christmas time.

Instead, Ms. Resendiz nibbles on fruit at the restaurant in an Alberta government trailer park while her two children America, 7, and Joshua, 4, play nearby. After she, her husband and their children were forced from their High River duplex by the massive floods that swept the town in June, the family was supposed to get into their new house the day before Christmas. But a construction delay has pushed the move-in day into the new year. No kitchens in the dorm-like trailers means no home-cooked food.

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“It’s not home. That’s the hard part,” said Ms. Resendiz, whose third child is due next month.

For High River residents still living in the provincial government’s Saddlebrook trailer park, maintaining a festive spirit is a difficult task. Keepsake Christmas ornaments crafted by children were lost in the muddy water that poured into basements in June. Uncertainty regarding the size and timing of insurance and disaster assistance payments still looms over many. New houses or rentals are expensive and tough to find. And even with a number of flood-mitigation dams and channels in the works, the new year brings renewed concerns about the next rainy season.

Six months after floods devastated communities across southern Alberta – and hit High River especially hard – the multibillion-dollar rebuild continues. The province estimates that more than 1,000 people are still out of their homes and living in temporary government accommodation. Hundreds of Siksika First Nation members live in flood-relief shelters, and dozens of others stay in a temporary neighbourhood in Calgary, or hotels. But more than 500 of those still out of their homes live in Saddlebrook, the largest government camp meant to provide a shelter for those forced from their homes for months, or possibly even years.

In the town of High River – just a few kilometres south of the Saddlebrook camp – homes cheerily decorated for the holidays sit next to houses slated for demolition. Some businesses have posted signs proclaiming “We’re Back” while others are boarded up. Earlier this week, it was decided that another High River neighbourhood, Wallaceville, would be returned to an undeveloped state to help alleviate a chokepoint along the Highwood River. A number of low-rise apartment complexes sit dark and destroyed – a situation that adds to an already tight rental market in the picturesque and prosperous town of about 13,000, located 65 kilometres south of Calgary.

Many of those who are still waiting for a place to live in High River – or are deciding whether to move back to the flood-prone town situated close to Rocky Mountain river headwaters – spend their days in Saddlebrook.

The provincial government and Outland Camps, the Ontario-based company contracted to run the trailer park, have taken a number of steps to help people feel more at home. Santa and reindeer have made appearances at the camp, and Christmas lights decorate stark modular structures. Decks and fences surround the trailers, and a soccer field and skating rink are a part of the recreation facilities. Charities and businesses from across the country have showered residents with presents and gift certificates. Alongside Christmas and New Year’s feasts and parties, the kitchen provides three cooked-from-scratch meals each day – including vegetarian and halal options – and a canteen provides drinks, soup and snacks at any hour.

“I’ll tell you, that’s one thing nobody has ever complained about since Day 1 here – the food. They absolutely love the food,” said camp manager Philip Dawson, who has experience running U.S. military camps in the Middle East as well as food and beverage services at a Jamaican Sandals resort.

But Saddlebrook is still a hastily assembled trailer park in a former cow pasture. To go for meals, seniors with walkers carefully navigate the cold on outdoor boardwalks. Some grumble that Saddlebrook has over-restrictive rules, including scheduled hours for meals and a security checkpoint at the entrance of the camp.

“It’s just like being in jail,” said John Hickey, one of many High River residents employed at the nearby Cargill Canada cattle slaughterhouse. “But I’ve got no where else to go.”

But among many of the residents stuck in the less-than-ideal circumstances, there’s also immense gratitude for the temporary shelter, food and community.

“I just want to say thank you taxpayers, and thank you God,” said camp resident Jerry Shiel, a construction worker and addictions counsellor whose home will be demolished and rebuilt. He hopes he will be able to move back to his High River property by the fall of 2014.

Denise Moore and her husband, Bill Corcoran, will spend Christmas Day with the family who took in their 14-year-old dog Max after the floods. Ms. Moore was separated from the dog when the June flood waters unexpectedly surged around her house – located on the same street near the river where both former prime minister Joe Clark and author W.O. Mitchell once lived. With water up to her chest, the retired high-school drama teacher said a stranger helped her reach a neighbour’s roof where she sat for 4 1/2 hours before being rescued by helicopter.

“I thought regardless of what happens, life will never be the same, and that’s all there is to it,” Ms. Moore, 66, said in the small trailer that will be the couple’s home until next spring.

“I’m just glad I’m here.”

In October, the government started requiring most camp residents to pay rent (one adult pays $627, a family of four pays $1,217, with rates inclusive of items such as food, utilities, laundry and housekeeping). The government said that covers just 10 per cent of the overall cost of the temporary camp. Mr. Dawson said the camp population is down from an initial 1,200 in the summer, when the camp was free, to about 500 people now.

He said the contract for the camp only goes until March right now but he expects it to be extended.

“Some folks are saying their home is not going to be ready until the end of spring,” Mr. Dawson said.

“They’re going to have to find housing for them somewhere and there really is nothing around.”

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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