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Leaving High River

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On September 20, 2013, we started moving into our new home. It was further away from Calgary (where I work), making for a longer commute. But the home was dry, and it was ours. We were exceedingly lucky.

Three months from the day that my partner and I were first evacuated, we were leaving High River.

Most of the news that people will hear will focus on the numbers, now. Insured damage has topped $1.7 billion, making the flooding throughout southern Alberta the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Even that ignores the fact that the most widespread of the damage (overland flooding) is not covered by insurance plans in Canada... something that has resulted in many fights with insurers over just how much damage is the result of sewer backup or other insured aspects. Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry is already telling Albertans to brace for a 30 per cent hike in rates. Meanwhile, many High Riverites -- and throughout Southern Alberta (the nearby Siksika Nation reserve was also particularly hard-hit) -- struggle to find options.

But there we are, detoured by the numbers again. It's the only way we have to measure the scale of what occurred. Otherwise, we're helpless to the randomness and madness of it all. While non-residents seem to have the impression that the entire town was built on a floodplain, the expected flood zone actually accounts for very little of the community... something that is factoring significantly in the conflicts between the province and inland residents who are finding themselves ineligible for the long-promised relief funding. While it's true that the entire town was flooded and evacuated, the reason it did may be more mishap than anything, and probably will be the stuff of lawsuits for the next decade.

As we were moving into our home in another town, a number of High Riverites were also just returning to theirs, in the hardest-hit part of the town. Others were still living in the trailers set up in various places, while their homes could be restored to habitability. Much of High River's downtown core is patched up but left dark, with no certainty of whether some of those businesses will ever return.

In nearby Calgary, the volunteer thanking and patting on the back has grown so old that residents are starting to sound almost tediously annoyed when reminded that people remain displaced since the June calamity. "Isn't that all over, yet?"

 

'Isn't it over, yet?'

It seemed to take forever.

When the flooding first hit, High Riverites were being told to check the town website, to listen to the local radio station, or to follow the Facebook and Twitter feeds. But the town website was offline, and the local radio stations were reduced to dead air. The feeds weren't being updated. A Calgary station reported that a woman had been washed away from a trailer in Black Diamond. And boats from an RV sales centre were being sighted miles downstream. And the Town of Bragg Creek was underwater. My partner rushed home to gather our shih-tzu and an overnight bag, just in case. One minute, everything was dry; the next, she was driving out of our community with water up to the bottom of her car door.

There was a severe lack of information in the beginning, and then when updates finally came, they arrived with some tempers and occasional snark. It was five days before we were able to see aerial photos of the flooding mess, which had inexplicably reached every building in town, including areas that we had previously been certain were too far from the river or too elevated to be in any danger. But all prior expectations were rendered moot. As someone who had previously researched the worst flooding of the Town's pre-2005 known history -- in the 1910s, which resulted in water a foot deep at the Wales Theatre -- it seemed surreal to look at photos now of our local 7-11 submerged almost up to its awning.

The debates are fierce, now, about whether the canal system that had been designed to withstand a 1-in-100 flood like the town experienced in 2005 actually helped spread the water everywhere, or whether a decision to divert some of the flood waters into what ultimately became the hardest-hit neighbourhood (despite its distance from the river) was a decision (as one engineer called it) to sacrifice that community. But back then, we didn't even know enough to base a guess on.

We understood that there was mess and risk, yet the town seemed to want to go to the overprotective extreme, to have roads completely cleared and utilities, water, sewage disposal, sewage treatment, power, phones, protective services, fencing for "high-risk areas," and medical centre all fully-functional, and a "welcome centre" in operation, before we were going to be allowed back. Even the most pragmatic of us had to fight the impulse to kick ourselves for not ignoring the evacuation order. The risk and chaos of living in a houseboat on Lake High River almost seemed like a preferable course of action.

Equally perplexing was the way that during the evacuation, skilled and experienced contractors were being turned away, only to later see the entire recovery and cleanup effort turned over exclusively to a predominantly energy-focused company, before the public really knew that there was a bidding process. But that came later.

The town enlisted the Canadian Armed Forces to protect the flood-damaged township from its citizens. Yet most of the military presence was gone before we were even allowed to see our homes or know the state secret of what was left. It was a week and a half before residents of select areas were being allowed back in to view their homes -- wealthy areas first, it seemed -- and secure their things. My fiancee and I were allowed in at the two-week mark, and arrived to find our window smashed in, so that it could have been easily accessed for nearly a week by the volunteers already allowed into ground zero.

In some media outlets, you'd almost think that the most important story in all of the mess was the RCMP entering of homes and seizing unsecured firearms, rather than the enormous expanse of lake which nearly a month later still sat where the eastern third of a town had been. Even that little aspect of the flooding gets engineered: you don't hear from the animal rescue efforts or from residents upset about their belongings left unattended or from homeowners whose firearms weren't seized. The entire southern Alberta flood has been distilled into a rallying cry for insecure gun nuts.

Of course, you can't talk about global warming. That would be politically exploitative and crazy.

There's a perception that Albertans are among the most stubborn of the climate change deniers. Yet, there weren't very many skeptics milling about outside the Nanton evacuation centre... although the acknowledgement is sometimes made by subsuming things into a biblical paradigm of end-times scriptures about "earthquakes in diverse places." Even so, if there was one thing that people in southern Alberta shared, it was a realization that something had changed. High River and many other towns had already seen a "1-in-100" flood, in recent memory (2005). This was different.

And as we waited to return home, it was not lost on people that a record heat wave stretched across the western half of North America, with heat-enhanced fires claiming the lives of 19 highly-skilled firefighters. Flash sleet mixed with slush (called "hail" on the news, but we could see for ourselves what it was) struck Alberta in July, a monsoon hit Uttarakhand, India, record flash flooding struck Toronto, and now Colorado has experienced something eerily reminiscent of June 20 and 21. Bad weather happens. But greater extremes, greater unpredictability, greater frequency, and greater consequences... that's unmistakably different. Especially when we know the magnitude of what we experienced:

When a low pressure system from the Pacific reached Alberta, that parked high pressure cell kept the low pressure backed up against the foothills, dropping rain across much of central and southern Alberta for much longer than expected. Many locations across southern Alberta received as much rain in 18 hours as they would normally receive in two months. Since some snow still remained in the mountains, there was also a rain-on-snow event that added even more water into the creeks and rivers.

From my own perspective, I don't know how we can know what we do about CFCs, lead, mercury, sarin gas, carcinogens, forms of toxicity, the steps needed to prevent or control chemical leaching, and not think that what we do in industry can have lasting effects on our ecosystems. Or why we would not feel an obligation to do what we can to be responsible stewards of the world we love.

The Town of High River is a weird little idyll in the Alberta Southwest. It's remote enough to feel like a retreat, but urban enough to feel luxurious. Situated where the prairies begin to fade into foothills, with the Rocky Mountains waiting inspiringly in the near distance, it's almost an epicentre of rustic western Canadiana. It's only a little over an hour into Kananaskis, to the mountains, to the rugged Porcupine Hills, to urban Calgary, to Aboriginal historic sites like Blackfoot Crossing or Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, to picturesque Banff and Canmore, not quite two hours to the Drumheller badlands, to some of Alberta's rare patches of near-desert, just a little further into Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, to Waterton Lakes or to the Writing-On-Stone heritage site. It took something like eight day-trips just to see the most notable filming locations for Brokeback Mountain. It's easy to see why series like Heartland would be filmed here, and why the first Mantracker would be a High Riverite.

It seems strange to leave, and also concerning about what the town is likely to become. Largely untouched by box-stores and big brand retailers (other than fast-food locations), that's sure to change, as many independent businesses are likely to not rebuild, while larger retailers will probably take interested in rebuilding incentives, and council are not likely to be as choosy. It's disaster capitalism on a micro- scale. The spark of the town is gone.  It seems better to leave entirely than to sit in the midst of the dank and dark that has stained everything. We feel guilty, overly-privileged, and more than a little resentful of the day everything changed.

On the morning of June 20, we expected that people would start sandbagging in the morning, and we'd head over to wherever we might be needed, in the evening -- probably the floodplain areas. By then, people would be getting tired, and we could give them some rest, bring coffee, or provide whatever support was needed. We weren't worried: we'd seen what we'd been told would be the worst, in 2005. Even so, the morning seemed a little surreal as I left for work in Calgary, and had to struggle to get onto the main road, for all the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

We never thought we'd be leaving High River forever.

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