More than two dozen residents of the Siksika Nation reserve, one of the hardest-hit areas in the massive floods that swept southern Alberta a year ago, are still living in hotels or with family and friends, eating in restaurants at the provincial government’s expense.
Another 335 Siksika residents are staying in relief trailers. In total, 779 people living on the reserve were displaced during the 2013 flood, and only 33 families are staying in homes that have been repaired for temporary housing, according to Alberta’s Aboriginal Relations Ministry.
“It has been a year. We are still displaced,” Siksika resident Marty Woods said at a table in Strathmore’s Days Inn & Suites. “Nothing has happened here.”
Siksika residents are not alone. Nearly 1,000 Albertans remain in “government-supported temporary accommodation” one year after rivers in the southern slice of the province slammed through towns, causing roughly $6-billion in damage. Siksika’s situation, however, highlights how difficult the recovery, rebuilding and relocating process has been. More than 100,000 Albertans were displaced during the floods, and some of the homes look exactly as they did in the days after the water receded. It will take years for complex mitigation efforts such as dams, diversions, dikes and berms to be decided upon, funded and constructed. Even temporary projects designed to hold back water in High River remain unfinished as the Highwood River threatens the town this week. Rain and the melting snow pack are again the culprits.
And now, some of Alberta’s rivers further to the south are flooding neighbourhoods, forcing evacuations and prompting officials to declare states of emergency. Twelve communities had declared states of emergency by Thursday afternoon, with two more activating their emergency operations centres.
By Thursday afternoon, flood and rain water affected more than 130 homes on the Blood Tribe reserve, forcing about 350 people to evacuate; in Lethbridge, more than 300 homes have been hit with sewer backups or overland flooding; roughly 35 homes were flooded in Claresholm, closing schools; several homes flooded on Piikani Nation; and a secondary highway near Fort McLeod was closed because of overland flooding, according to the provincial government.
The destruction is far less severe than the chaos caused by floods in 2013, but this year’s troubles highlight how vulnerable the province is to disasters. The fresh round of flooding demonstrates that protecting people and infrastructure is complex and, at times, impossible. Many communities on the list of regions under states of emergency were mere spectators in last year’s flooding.
Major mitigation projects also need regulatory approval from a number of different government agencies – a process provincial officials say will not be sidestepped and will take years – and the domino effect makes plans difficult.
High River, for example, has placed about 2,300 gravel bags, each weighing about 1.5 tonnes, on top of a berm to protect part of the town. It stretches about three kilometres. This is temporary, town officials say, but a permanent solution cannot be built until High River knows what the province intends to do with respect to different water diversion options on the table.
Alberta, trying to stave off a repeat of the 2013 floods, is considering four major flood mitigation projects: an off-stream storage site west of Calgary to divert and store water from the Elbow River; a dry dam at the confluence of McLean Creek and the Elbow River, providing protection for Bragg Creek, Redwood Meadows and Calgary; an underground diversion in Calgary from the Elbow into the Bow River; and diversions in High River. Other big projects are still being weighed, and smaller projects are still under consideration, such as restoring wetlands. But these projects would do little to protect areas threatened this year.
All this comes as 64 new trailer homes at Siksika sit unoccupied. The homes, earmarked for 2013 flood victims, are meant to be temporary, although residents are expected to be in them for years. The trailers have decks and some of the porch lights are on. Residents are frustrated, wondering why they are living at the Coast Plaza Hotel & Conference Centre in Calgary, or the Days Inn in Strathmore, and eating meals at the hotels or restaurants. In Strathmore, the hotel provides breakfast, and other meals are comped by the government at the Roadhouse. Some people have been in hotels for nearly the entire year. Many are frustrated they can’t move into the trailer homes or be reassigned a plot of land to rebuild. They don’t want to be in the hotels, even if they joke their children are turning into fish after spending so much time in the pool.
The government says it is still finalizing the lease agreement with Siksika, and people can move into the mobile homes by the end of the month.
Siksika is not an isolated case. As of June 18, there were 934 people living in “government-supported temporary accommodation,” according to Alberta’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs. There are 193 people living in Saddlebrook, a temporary community made up of work-camp trailers outside High River; 357 people living in interim housing on Stoney Nakoda reserve; 16 people in mobile homes in the municipal district of Bighorn, which includes Exshaw, Canmore and Cochrane. (There are 12 people living in mobile homes in Exshaw, paying market rent, who will likely be there for two or three years).
This comes at huge expense. In Saddlebrook, for example, tenants pay less than 10 per cent of what it costs to house them. It costs the government about $200 per person per day for interim housing accommodation. The cost includes accommodation, meals, housekeeping, laundry services, cable, Internet and security services.