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A house in Riverside Villas in High River, Alta., is vacant and severely damaged, as seen on July 23, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
A house in Riverside Villas in High River, Alta., is vacant and severely damaged, as seen on July 23, 2013. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

High Riverites want their town back as it was Add to ...

James and Deb Kinghorn live – or lived – in Wallaceville, one of the communities of High River, Alta., that the Highwood River hit hardest when it flooded last month. Ms. Kinghorn spent two days using a spatula to scrape the mud off the wooden floors in their kitchen and living room. Mr. Kinghorn can see that the garage on their rental property across the street was torn from its foundation and collapsed. That house’s veranda is missing.

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Wallaceville is an example of a zone that may be revamped – or eventually moved – as the government tries to figure out how to protect Alberta from similar disasters in the years to come. And the Kinghorns are having none of it for Wallaceville, even though floods hit them in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

Rebuild, they say. Right here. They are not alone in their determination. Many High Riverites want their town back as it was, with their lives protected not by abandoning neighbourhoods, but through mitigation efforts in and around the town of 13,000.

“It is my home. It is worth more than what the assessed value is,” said Mr. Kinghorn, a first-term High River councillor. “It is a community.”

Mr. Kinghorn wants the government to build better berms, diversions, dredging and other pieces of mitigation infrastructure before considering other measures. He also thinks the province needs to look upstream for problems, examining what role clear-cut logging in the mountains and global warming played in the June 20 disaster.

The Progressive Conservative government believes protecting High River from floods is cheaper than relocating the entire town. More berms disguised as parks, for example, could emerge. And that means riverside Wallaceville and others like it in the province may disappear over time.

“We recognize Wallaceville as being a part of town that creates an issue and it is in the floodway,” said Rick Fraser, associate minister of regional recovery and reconstruction for High River. “The discussions are ongoing in terms of how we deal with it.”

But even massive mitigation plans may not be enough. Andrew Weaver, who shares a Nobel Peace Prize for work on climate change, said global warming has increased the frequency and magnitude of disasters such as the floods which crushed High River, Canmore, Exshaw, Calgary, Kananaskis Country, Siksika Nation and others, all while threatening even more towns in southern Alberta.

“A one-in-500-year event will not be a one-in-500-year event [in the future],” said Mr. Weaver, a Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria and a Green Party MLA in British Columbia.

He points to New York and Toronto as evidence. New high water marks were set in New York in 2012, 2011 and 2010, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States; between 1900 and 2012, all of the top 10 high-water marks are post-1950. In Toronto, there have been three one-in-100-year storms in less than 12 years: July, 2000, August, 2005, and July, 2012, according to a 2012 summary of the SENES Consultants Ltd. study by Toronto Environment Office.

High River Mayor Emile Blokland does not expect a major physical makeover of his town, which sits about 60 kilometres south of Calgary.

“High River will be pretty much what you see as today,” he said. “The town of High River will rebuild and in a short period of time we’ll look just as good as before, and maybe better in some areas.”

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