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Flood trauma delayed: ‘It hadn’t really sunk in’

A month after the floods, Helen (Jette) Fraser, 71, was upbeat. She was living in a tent, but had saved the welcome sign from her old home, which reads ‘Her Bor “Jeg” Jette,’ or ‘here lives I, Jette.’ Now, she says, her identity is shaken.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

A month after the flood that devastated High River, Alta., Carrie Tait talked to Helen (Jette) Fraser – a Dane who had fallen in love with a Canadian soldier and followed him home. As with many people in town, her property was destroyed. "The current was so strong, I had to take my cane out," she said of the waters.

Helen Fraser felt so free in the days after she lost her mobile home in High River's flood. The weight of life's paraphernalia collected – but not needed – over her 71 years was gone. She was living in a tent, cooking on a hot plate. She wore lipstick, giggled and chilled wine in a blue rubber bucket. Now, 100 days later, she is plagued by thoughts of suicide.

"It is out of the question to do it, but I wish that sometimes, you know, how nice it would be to even not wake up the next morning," she says. "But then I thought, well, so, what would my animals do? What would they do if I wasn't around?"

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Ms. Fraser has been diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety disorder (she has lost 15 pounds off a lean frame). With the help of fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, she has moved to Youngstown, about 310 kilometres northeast of High River, so that she can stay with her three dogs and four cats. She is financially pinched, because groceries are expensive there, and scared of the heating bills that will accompany the snow.

"There's nothing here. Nothing. There's a service station, a convenience store and a post office and that's it. And I'm in the middle of the Alberta prairie. Smack in the middle," she says. "I don't want to live here."

Dragged down by mental illness, she has one friend in the town of about 500. Ms. Fraser originally thought that she would return to High River, but now she is too afraid the Highwood River will again bash through its banks and wipe away any stability she hopes to regain. Her mortgage totals about $25,000, and that's after sending the Alberta government's initial flood-relief payment of $10,000 to the bank.

And she knows she will probably have to leave Youngstown, too, because the house she is in is up for sale. "I'm homeless. Even though I have a place to live, I'm homeless."

At the same time, Ms. Fraser is grateful that she has a nice, safe place to ride out the winter. "But I'm not the happy-go-lucky, cheerful person that you met in the tent," she says.

"My brain has been damaged because of what happened. It didn't hit me right at first. It was kind of like, you know, I was in shock, or adrenalin or whatever.

"I see the picture still, in that article that you wrote about me there, and I was smiling and everything. I never felt so good, actually, as when I was living in that tent. But you know, I was living in a fantasy world because it hadn't really sunk in – the enormity of what actually happened. Not just to me, but to the whole town."

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