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Moving back, moving on: Life after the flood in High River

It’s been 38 days since the Highwood River breached its banks and plowed through this place. There have been other floods in High River. But this time, the town of 13,000 was hit hard. Yes, Sobeys is now open. Rather appropriately, so is Evelyn’s Memory Lane Café. But these are exceptions. Most of the downtown resembles businesses like the Wales Theatre (est. 1927). Its door is unlocked, its main floor gutted. Other parts of town are in transition – pharmacies and banks operating out of trailers, cleanup crews vacuuming sidewalks, hauling drywall from ruined buildings and throwing whatever they find (teddy bears, filing cabinets) into piles of lumber and nails. And then there are the residents: some have been able to return to their homes for the first time this week, others have moved to temporary housing outside of town. Few have been untouched. Few know exactly what the future holds, as the government debates the best way to handle billions of dollars in damage.

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Floodwaters rose so high, so fast, that Ronda Kalman had to be rescued by boat from her trailer’s rooftop. The 43-year-old and her partner, John Willis, 37, returned on Tuesday. But what’s left of their home is split down the middle, a crack separating the trailer from its wooden addition. Inside, a deep freezer with rotting deer meat and other game blocks the door, making windows the only way to get at piles of their stuff – just what, it is hard to say – caked in mud. Thirty freshwater fish that were left in their six-foot tank are dead, although the couple’s pet snakes survived. Mr. Willis also hands Ms. Kalman an untouched bottle of wine through a broken window. “It’s homemade,” she says. “It is very good.” When a grinning Mr. Willis walks out of the ruins with another item, a tiny, muddy box, Ms. Kalman trembles and sniffles but manages not to cry. She wipes away gunk to expose an inscription: “J.R.B. to M.B.B. Jan 1. 1929.” Her grandfather proposed to her grandmother with a ring from this sterling silver box. (Ronda was wearing the same ring when the disaster hit). For all the ruin, she wants to stay here. “I like the people. I like the town,” she says.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

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She’s 71 and living in a tent – her bed, mini-fridge, hotplate, three dogs and four cats along with her. It wasn’t how Jette Helen Fraser imagined life in Canada, where she moved after meeting her husband at a bar in Copenhagen while he was on military duty in 1966. But he’s gone now. She has no family here. And the flood trashed her home of 17 years. “The current was so strong I had to take my cane out,” she says, describing her escape from the rising waters. Since then, she’s been stuck outside on a stranger’s lawn – washing her clothes and dishes in plastic buckets and leaving bathwater to heat overnight. It’s a temporary solution. Eventually she will move from her campsite to the indoors. She has become friends with the owner of the property, who is renovating a messy suite in his house for her to live in. Until then, she’s maintaining a semblance of civilization while roughing it. Flowerpots decorate the outside of her tent. Wine chills in yet another bucket. She wears mascara, and applies lipstick using a handheld mirror. “I also have a walker, but it is not practical here.” Her friends (Jehovah’s Witness members, like her) rescued the welcome sign from her former home. It reads: “Her Bor ‘Jeg’ Jette.” Here lives I, Jette.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

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Francis Botacion arrived at Saddlebrook, a cluster of trailers the Alberta government is calling a “neighbourhood,” on Wednesday. The 32 year-old industrial butcher came to Canada from the Philippines two years ago as a temporary foreign worker at the Cargill meat-processing plant down the highway. Since then, his digs in High River have been flooded – and he’s been moved three times. First, he stayed in Okotoks, a neighbouring city. Then he lived in residence at the University of Calgary. Now, he’s one of about 1,200 people moving into trailers dotted along wooden sidewalks where TransCanada Corp., a pipeline company, once imagined a gas plant. Instead, the company is renting the land to the government for a year at $100 to help with flood relief. Heavy machinery motors around the trailers, rushing to build more housing. There are also three restaurants, some rec rooms and playgrounds on the way. Mr. Botacion hopes to be back in his own place in five weeks. But he has the next three months to squat here rent-free if he needs to (an undetermined fee may follow after that). His expectations are simple: “Probably having a nice sleep,” he says. “And they told us that we got TV.” Whatever happens, he’s impressed with the province’s response, even though he’d hoped for Wi-Fi that hadn’t arrived by Friday. “Seriously, they are much more better than my country.”

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

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