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The Globe and Mail

In High River, 300 residents defy evacuation, devastation

A displaced boat on someones front lawn damage caused by the massive flood in High River during a media tour of the city June 25, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Rob, Kelly and Kienen Dennis are among the 300 people defying this town's mandatory flood-evacuation order, taking their chances on dangers from sinkholes, to infectious diseases and even fire.

On a trip Tuesday to procure snacks from an Esso station inside the evacuation zone, the trio ride bicycles through the aftermath of the flood that rushed through the town of 12,920 six days earlier.

Battered boats, still with blue tarps, are piled up five high to their left. Four Canadian Forces light-armoured vehicles, there to help clean up the mess, are to their right.

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Flood waters took out at least one bridge in High River, and others are unsafe. Ms. Dennis bikes past a Mastercraft ProStar 197, among the boats that were pushed across Centre Street, and now rests in mud, rocks and other debris in front of a house with shattered windows. On the other side of the road, railway tracks, abandoned years ago, are mangled and covered in heavy-duty debris.

Rivers all across the southern half of Alberta flooded towns last week, and High River, about 60 kilometres south of Calgary, is one of the hardest-hit areas.

Calgary, Canmore, Siksika Nation and others must rebuild large swaths of their communities. Alberta Premier Alison Redford says it could take a decade.

Residents in High River, like other centres, don't know when they will be able to return home – or whether they still have a home at all. The Dennis trio, including 17-year-old Kienen, stayed in High River when the Highwood River took over town Thursday, arguing they saved their home by immediately pumping out water.

Ms. Dennis insists she is safe, despite officials saying the largely deserted town is without sewage services and power. "We got lots of water. We got lots of food. I'm not concerned," she told reporters, six days after High River declared a state of emergency and told all residents to evacuate. "I'm at home in the safety of my five animals that weren't willing to leave. So that's why we're here."

RCMP say they have contacted 327 people still in High River and encouraged them to leave. Thirty-eight people who stayed behind have since been rescued. More than 4,500 buildings have been searched. Officials have not been able to search 63 buildings because of integrity issues or because the toxic water is too high. A specialized dive team is now searching for victims. Three people are confirmed dead because of the Highwood River flood.

High River hosts invisible sinkholes, gas leaks, dust clouds made toxic because of feces and dead animals. Authorities sparked a fire when they tried to turn on the power in one part of town. Infectious diseases are a risk. Some homes are still completely underwater, and there is a still a floodwater lake two kilometres wide and five kilometres long. Water is still freely flowing through some areas of town.

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Power lines in Wallaceville, a community next to Centre Street, lie in puddles and fire hydrants are flattened into deep mud.

For those outside the town's barricades, frustration with police is growing. On Tuesday, resident Walter Danylak was turned away. "I could go in and at least pick up more clothes, get more personal belongings and leave without interrupting," he said.

High River Mayor Emile Blokland does not know when residents can return.

"We do not have sanitary sewer. We have no water for those folks. We have no utilities for those folks. When they get here, we have no gas for their cars. We don't have a grocery store open," Mr. Blokland said in front of a newly built berm on the edge of town. "We don't have a medical centre. We don't have protective services for them. We don't have a drug store for them. No business in town is open at this moment. It is not safe to be in our community," he said.

"We don't have a flood. We have a disaster," he said.

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