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state of emergency

Emergency crews used helicopters and boats – even combines and front-end loaders – to rescue stranded citizens in High River, Alta., after a flash flood ripped through the town in the southern half of the province, triggering mandatory evacuation orders and the declaration of a state of emergency.

At least one woman near Black Diamond, a small community near High River, is missing after being swept into the Highwood River.

Jesse Lewis was trapped in her home in southwest High River, with flood water halfway up her basement stairs Thursday. She was about to head to her rooftop when a firefighter put her in a loader to move her to a safe spot. But the river currents that took over residential streets were too strong, and the loader had to try a few different routes before depositing her at the Hitchin Post Drive-In, a burger joint on dry ground. Rescue came in a peculiarly Prairies form: She climbed on a red Massey Ferguson 9540 combine and made it to safety.

High River residents filled combine hoppers and clung to handrails near the combines' cabs.

"Cars were flipping over," said Ms. Lewis, 18. The Bob Snodgrass Recreation Complex, which sits near what is usually a dry creek bed, was half under water. Helicopters and boats were also used in High River to whisk away trapped residents.

High River's evacuation centres were evacuated as well. Highwood High School was wrapping up its evacuation at about 7 p.m., moving people to the town of Blackie. Nanton, south of High River, also took in evacuees.

The first floor of High River's hospital was evacuated, with some patients moved to the second floor, according to Mandy Kemeri, a volunteer helping clear out the last residents who took shelter at Highwood High. The Charles Clark Medical Centre, near the hospital, was one of the original shelters, but was emptied earlier in the day, Ms. Kemeri said.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, whose High River home is on high ground, joined in sandbagging operations.

When word went out that flood waters were approaching High River hospital, Ms. Smith went to help out sandbagging efforts there. But not long after she arrived, rising waters cut off the hospital from the rest of the town, stranding patients, staff and volunteers. "We have water seeping in the front door, and we're on emergency power," Ms. Smith said by phone. "People here have never seen anything like this before."

With 124 patients in hospital, Ms. Smith said the greatest concern was how to move out the elderly and those in neonatal care if it came to that. Although the landing pad is under water, she said a helicopter was able to land on the roof of the hospital in a test run.

The other fear is that sewage-treatment facilities will be unable to cope, which could lead to contamination.

But although the situation was dire, flooding is nothing new for High River. "People are just making the best of it," Ms. Smith said.

With a report from The Canadian Press