Wednesday, July 24, 2013

High River Flood | Part 2: Displacement and Waiting

After leaving the High River airport and heading to my brother's house in Lethbridge, we arrived safely later that night. My brother had picked up diapers and toothbrushes for everyone. Though I had packed emergency bags for our family, they had to be left in the boat. So we literally had nothing but the clothes on our backs as we were driven out of town by the flooding. Neither Andy nor I had any identification. No money. No vehicle. No clothes.

We hardly slept that night, though we were so tired. We woke early, staying in bed checking our phones to get on Facebook and use text messaging, making sure family and friends had gotten out safely. My brother doesn't have TV, so we used internet to find the news we needed. We knew my sister had gotten out - in her jeep with her dogs (a chihuahua and a great dane), but she hadn't heard from her husband, who had decided to stay at home. 

I was completely useless to everyone those first few days - I was glued to my phone, finding friends on Facebook, making sure everyone was safe, and trying to get more information on what was happening.

Throughout the day, we learned that the police were evacuating the entire town, and it was declared a State of Emergency. The army was coming to take over: over a thousand were coming from Edmonton and other areas. We also heard that among other places in Alberta, Bragg Creek, Canmore, and even downtown Calgary had also been flooded! We were in shock. We watched videos posted online, and were able to see friends being taken to safety in the buckets of tractors. We knew many had gotten to safety in manure trucks. We were relieved to see my brother-in-law in one of the videos. At least now we knew he was safe. My sister stayed in her jeep that night, and would sleep many nights there. My aunt had driven herself out when she was evacuated, and stayed at the Nanton evac center, then would stay with friends in Okotoks in the days to come. Many stayed at evacuation centers in Nanton or Blackie. 

We had no idea what to do next. Our town was underwater. No one really knew anything.

Andy and I had a visit from his sister and brother-in-law, who helped us out so we could purchase essentials. Andy's sweet aunt also phoned wanting to help. We met with her later that day. We went out to buy clothes for ourselves (Value Village) and essentials from the grocery store.

We were touched and amazed at the graciousness we saw that day not only from our family, but from people we hardly knew. At the grocery store, I saw an old acquaintance - the cousin of a good friend. I hadn't seen or talked with her in years. She was touched by our story (and what she'd been hearing on the news) and wanted to do something for us. She was generous in paying for a good portion of our groceries.

That day, and many other moments since then, I have cried more in seeing the generosity of others than I have for the loss I have experienced.

It was decided that my family would keep to our plans of staying in Waterton. This much anticipated vacation would turn into a safe refuge. 

*side note: as water was filling in our basement, and we had abandoned efforts to save things, we remarked to each other, "I guess Waterton isn't going to happen." to which Otto announced in a bright voice, "Our house IS Waterton!"*

Friends of my parents had asked them to look after a house in Waterton, as no one would be staying there that week. So on we went to Waterton. It was so strange trying to pack for this trip, seeing how we didn't really have anything! We borrowed much and were given the rest through the kindness of others.

Waterton was cold, but beautiful. It did my heart good to breathe in that fresh air, and to be surrounded by trees and nature.

We were all together in one house, which meant a lot to me. (both my brothers came out for a few days, but my sisters were not able to be there)

However, wireless connection was difficult to come by, especially since the weather was not so good, so it was frustrating trying to get what news we could. We were there four days - my Mom took good care of us with food and activities for the kids. Then on the Wednesday, almost a week after the flood and not having heard any real news about High River and when we were going to be allowed back, Andy got a call from a good friend from his high school days. He felt terrible about our situation and wanted to offer us a place to stay, insisting that he would be offended if we did not stay with him and eat his food. Andy had been feeling stressed about being so far away and not being able to hear news, not being able to pick up calls when we needed them, not being closer to town for when/if they opened the town back up. So he jumped at the chance to get closer to High River. We quickly packed our bags and our boys and headed to stay with friends. 

That night, Andy got a call from a good friend who happens to be one of his bosses. It went a like this: "Andy! I'm in your house! What do you need?" completely frantic and crazy! He had a contractor's pass for town (the town was finally allowing their company to get in to fix the sewer lift stations) and had sneaked into our house late at night to check on it. He opened all the windows he could and also wanted to know if Andy would be able come to work the next day to help. Andy said yes, of course!

This friend had actually given us some peace of mind before that night he called from the inside of our house. He had called a few days after the flood, telling us that he had gone by our neighborhood to pick up his truck, which Andy had borrowed to get home on flood day. He said that the water had receded from our street, but that our basement was about 4ft full. Up until that point, I could see in my mind the entire basement full, as I thought that for sure the water on the inside would have been level with the water just outside our front door. Knowing it was *only* four feet was much easier to handle. That Wednesday night, he went through our house noting that the upstairs was dry, and that the water had drained from the basement, leaving about 3 inches of mud behind. He was able to drive his truck off our neighbor's property down the street - meaning our van might have survived as well. Good news considering we had thought the worst.

So Andy went to work the next day and I took the boys and we headed to our church in Okotoks. We had heard that donations were pouring in, so we went to see about some clothing and some food.
The outpouring of love and generosity was amazing to see. So much food. Many truckloads worth of clothing. And the volunteers had sorted everything so things were easy to find.

Friends in Okotoks fed us that night as well as many other nights and days after that.

The boys loved the acreage we stayed at. And I loved seeing them happy.

At the church, they had set up one of the rooms to use as a "command center" for Mormon Helping Hands. This is part of our church's humanitarian relief service. There was a number to call when you knew what kind of damage your property sustained, and what kind of help you might need. They had hundreds of cleaning buckets to go to those in need, and would send them along with a team of volunteers.

Over the next month and beyond, church member volunteers from across Alberta would come to people's aid with Mormon Helping Hands.  On July 21 the amazing count was 8,800 volunteers giving 53,000 man hours to the clean-up efforts. And that's not even counting the church volunteers who came out to help friends and strangers on their own initiative. 

Back to Thursday, June 27: one week after the flood. Andy went to work and was amazed at what he saw and the shocking lack of help the town was allowing. It was clear this disaster was too much for them to handle. Things had been damaged farther due to lack of knowledge, and Andy's crew worked long hours for the next several weeks. They were first in the sewers for several reasons - Andy's boss had been standing by trying to get his guys in to help, but the army had said NO: there was still so much cleanup and tests to run to make sure everything was as safe as possible.  Many of the town's 10 sewage lift stations were under water, filled with mud, rocks and other debris, or otherwise damaged. The company Andy works for designs, builds, and installs lift stations, and they had repaired High River ones in the past. And since they are a local company, they wanted to get in there to help right away.

They worked so hard that first day Andy was back. Over 50 man hours to repair one station which had to be abandoned in the end. It was too damaged and they needed to move on to the next one. And move they had to. Quickly. The province had taken over the operations and recovery of the town and had announced Phase 1 of reentry. People whose homes were in the NW and Eagleview were being allowed back in on June 29. The day before they were allowed back to their homes, Eagleview didn't even have sewage service! Andy worked until 1 in the morning: they frantically had to reroute the sewage pipes above ground to another station, as they had previously been draining into the station that was beyond repair! It was unbelievable.

The news was both good, bad, terrible, and devastating for the people going home on June 29. They had come up with a way to categorize and classify everyone's homes:
Green: No damage. Safe to live in.
Yellow: Some damage. Safe to live in.
Orange: Extensive damage. Will require major repairs in order to be liveable.
Red: Extensive damage. Not safe for habitation. Might have structural concerns.

Some friends saw green, some yellow, and some red that day. Heartbreaking for those with red. Residential cleanup had begun.

The boys and I stood with my parents and my sister in long line-ups and terrible heat to apply for and receive our Flood Relief prepaid cards that Saturday. This was a great help to all of us. Andy was able to retrieve our emergency bags from the house in High River where they had been left, his wallet from home, and our van from down the street. We had identification finally!

The next day was Sunday and we went to church. Our stake had provided for us by feeding us a hot meal after our meeting, which was wonderful. It was good to see my ward family, hear their stories, and give hugs. Many tears were shed and many miracles shared.

We also heard that day that Phase 2 of Re-entry would begin the next day, July 1st, Canada Day. I took the boys back down to Lethbridge to the safe keeping and care of their Aunt Karley and Uncle Irish, and Gramma and Grampa for the next week. I returned that same night and Andy and I nervously waited for July 1st to come. We would spend our Canada Day assessing the flood damage on our house. I was both nervous and excited for what the next day would show.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

High River Flood | Part 1: Flooding and Evacuation

 It has been awhile since I last posted. And I must warn you: this post will not contain any fun creative ideas or scrapbook pages I've done. This is a chapter in our lives I want to document today to look back on years from now.

 June 20, 2013 High River will go down in history as one of the worst natural disasters in Canada. They are putting the High River Flood up there with Katrina and Sandy. This is my town they are talking about. Where I live. Or... used to live. This is the story, Part 1: Flooding and Evacuation.

The day began like any other - we got up and got ready for our day. The boys and I were going to the Parent Link Center to meet some friends for some play. I was looking forward to this morning for the boys to play, because I knew what I had planned for the rest of the day - loads and loads of laundry! We were gearing up for a much-anticipated family reunion week in Waterton. 

10am, we arrived at Parent Link only to be turned away at the door. They said that there was a mandatory evacuation of all town buildings due to the river flooding. We thought, okay, the river floods a bit every year or two, nothing to worry about. Come to think of it, I'd been hearing sirens all morning. That must be what's going on. 

So the boys and I headed home and saw water coming down from 12Avenue, close to us. I called Andy to tell him about the evacuation and the water coming down the street, and he said something we're still laughing about (in a bit of a sarcastic way), "Oh yeah, well just go around the house and make sure the eavestroughs are pointing away from the house." I thought, there's not even any rain! What's that going to help? The boys and I walked to the backyard only to notice the water already coming down our alley! I quickly phoned Andy to hear that he was heading home with a pump. I then went out to the front again and to the curb and saw this:

Now, you must understand that when we bought our house, we knew it was NOT on the flood plane. It had never, in its 35 years, flooded. Now today the water was coming, and coming fast. We went inside the house and Andy worked to get the pump going in the case that water actually came into the house, which we didn't think would happen. Why would it? It had never flooded before.

The power went out and luckily Andy had also brought a generator from work. However, it stopped working, so Andy went into his garage, rummaging for tools in the water that had already flooded into the garage to come up with a quick fix. By this time, I had already noticed water seeping into the basement flooring. First shock of my life. We quickly went about transferring precious items such as photo albums and scrapbooks to the upper floor. It was as I was in this state, a neighbor (Fred) came to our door and asked for my van keys: the street was too full of water now for cars to pass through. 

We were stuck. 
Fred put our van, as well as several other vehicles, on another neighbor's driveway down the street. They have a steep driveway and is the highest spot on our street.

We had no power. We had no phone service. Land lines were down and cell phones weren't getting any service. We had no way to call for help.

I frantically began trying to save whatever I could from the basement, running up and down the stairs with my arms full. What do I save? What do I leave to be ruined by water for certain? The water is coming quickly now, and the generator and pump are still not working. Andy put duct tape on the windows and doors to hopefully keep some of the water out, because the water was rising at a frightening speed. It was now coming in through the front door:

(you can see the water level outside the door window)

Yes, I stopped to take some pictures. Crazy now when I think of what I could have saved in those moments.... The water outside our basement windows rose to the halfway mark before all was said and done. Higher than when I snapped this photo:

I feel that we were blessed to be stuck at home at this critical time because we were able to save so many precious things. Photos and fabric (I grabbed the two quilts I had been trying to finish for Otto and Atlas), scrapbooks completed and scrapbooks in the process of completion, my computer and hard drives (thousands of family photos stored here), and some scrapbooking supplies. After those precious things were safe, we continued to wade through the water (Andy had the pump working now, but the water was coming in so fast) to save what we could. We did this as long as we could before it was unsafe to wade through the water, and before I just about had a heart-attack with the combined feelings of stress, shock, and asthma, not to mention my legs being close to hypothermia (is it possible to only have one extremity feeling the effects? I wondered if my heart wasn't doing so well because of this fact). We had to abandon our efforts and wait upstairs to see what would happen next. 

This was heartbreaking. Knowing we were still in our house while it was filling up with water, destroying everything in the basement, and we couldn't do anything more than sit and wait.

I rested my heart for awhile, gave the children some snacks and settled Atlas to have a nap. He had no idea what was going on and wanted to be in on the action, but it was not safe for him so I had left him screaming in his crib while I had been running around frantically saving items from the basement. At least this way I knew he was safe. 

I then busied myself packing two emergency bags with essentials - clothing, toiletries, medications, my hard drives, camera, wallet, diapers, the boys special stuffies to give them comfort in the case we wouldn't be home that night. That's when I noticed that Andy's vintage car (the one from his grandfather which he had restored) was smoking on the inside! Andy rushed out to open things up to prevent fire.

(He thinks the smoke was from the electrical shorting out)

Then we waited, trying to keep the boys in good spirits.

5:00pm The same neighbor who had moved our van had arranged with Andy (as they stood outside our house in waist-deep water) to come get us in a boat when the time came to leave. We conversed with them out our upstairs window and they told us it was time to go. So we quickly put coats and shoes on the boys, put our only life-jacket on Atlas, our youngest, and got ready to leave our house. The only other "floatation device" we had was a silly old pool noodle, which we instructed Otto to hold onto tightly and don't let go.

Andy carried our two boys, one by one, out the back door and into this little rowboat, then carried me to the rowboat as well. Two of our neighbors, Andy, and two firemen then towed the boat around to collect other people who were stuck in their homes. We picked up my friend's son, who had been finishing his school year in High River after his family had moved to another town. I felt for his mother, as she probably had no idea how her son was getting to safety! 


In the end, we had 2 men, 1 teenager, 2 women, 2 boys, 1 cat and 2 dogs in the boat, in addition to the man who was rowing the boat, and the 3 men and 2 firemen who were towing us:
10 adults
 1 teenager
 and 2 children.
 All depending on one little rowboat. 
In the picture above, you can see Otto, my eldest son, holding his little brother close to him. He was so quiet the whole time.

For the next two hours, the 5 men towed us through raging river in the main streets and lower, more tame river in the side streets as we tried to find a safe route. It became clear that there was no safe route. We were all so afraid of going down any of the main streets with the current so strong, for fear of losing my two boys in the river! This was so scary for me, but we tried to keep a brave face for the children, so as not to worry them. For all they knew, this was simply a crazy adventure - going through streets we usually ride our bikes on... in a boat. You can see how thrilled Atlas is about this:

 We had been lucky enough to pick up life-jackets for everyone in our boat by this time. One of our neighbors, Daryl, who was helping tow our boat, had already been out earlier in his boat saving people, and had tied his boat to a telephone pole. We took the life-jackets from his boat, which was too light to safely pass through the river in the streets. Thankfully we had life-jackets!

I sat in the middle of the boat, with Otto and Atlas on my lap. My two arms around them, each hand tightly grasping their life-jacket tethers.

After two hours, a long day of being in the freezing waters, and the batteries dying in their communication devices, the firefighters knew there was no other way to get to safety and no way to call for help. We stopped in an alley, in tame waters, and came up with a plan. The plan was for all 13 of us to pile into this little rowboat to *hopefully* ride to safety. Daryl, Fred, Andy, and one of the firefighters got into the boat, and the water was inches from the top. There was no way all of us would fit and be able to ride to safety. 

When things looked most dire, a ray of hope came in the form of a coast guard helicopter flying above us. The firefighters' eyes saw that hope and began to wave them down. The helicopter took several passes over our heads as they assessed our position, then came down to hover above the river. As they came closer to the water, the helicopter created hurricane-like waves, whipping wind and water into our faces, which did not impress our boys in the least. They lowered one man, who came toward us to assess our situation and give us instructions. 

Only able to take four passengers, at first his instructions were to take Otto, Atlas, Devon (the other youth in our boat), and one parent (at which point I was crying because I thought that we would be separated from Andy and how was I going to do this on my own?!!) separately in a type of yolk, which they would have to hold tightly to in order to be taken up to the helicopter. This man looked straight at Otto and Atlas, giving them instructions as if they could understand him! Andy and I both shouted out (because the helicopter was so loud) that they were too young to understand. He took a moment to look at them again, realizing just how young they are! He quickly changed his plan, realizing the children needed to be with two adults. It was decided that Devon was old enough and capable to handle himself with the other adults in the boat. I was terrified for him, not wanting to part with him, and feeling some responsibility as his mother is a good friend of mine.

So the new plan was that they would send down a rope basket-type container. Andy would go up with Atlas, then they would send it down a second time for Otto and I. The basket had a bottom and three sides, with one side wide open to climb in and out of. They lowered it and Andy got out of the boat with Atlas, walking through the river to the basket. He climbed in and they placed Atlas in his arms. We knew Atlas would not like this, so we knew Andy should be the one to take him. This turned out to be a good decision because Atlas screamed and tried to wiggle his way out the entire time they were being lifted over 150 feet into the helicopter. My heart was bursting.

Then they lowered the basket for Otto and I. We got out of the boat and I was shocked at how cold the water was! Daryl held Otto as I got into the basket (another shock as I went further into the water than I had thought I would have to!), and handed him to me when I was ready. I clung to Otto and we both clung to the ropes, with my back to the open side of the basket, as we were lifted high to the helicopter. On the way up, I tried to make it not seem so scary for Otto, treating it like an adventure. I commented on seeing all the houses and being so high up. He was just quiet, saying very few words. When we got to the helicopter, a man clipped and secured the basket to the side of the helicopter, took Otto and secured him to a seat on the other side of the aircraft, then came back to help me out, also securing me in a seat beside Otto, across from Andy, who was holding tightly to Atlas.

Our neighbor, Dinah (Fred's better half), caught some of this story on video. You'll see Otto and I being airlifted:

Later, my neighbor Daryl's wife told me that out of his entire day of getting people to safety (they saved something like 13 people!), the hardest thing for him was watching Otto and I go up in that helicopter.

With tears in my eyes, I sat and looked out the window as we flew over our town, seeing with my own eyes the devastation this flood had made. I snapped this photo as we were leaving the outskirts of town:

It looked as if, in the space of a few short hours, most of our town was under water. We had no idea what was to come next. We were quiet as we flew towards the High River Airport.

We were the first to arrive at the small rural airport, where there was no power. We were soaking wet. We had only the clothes on our backs (having had to leave our emergency bags in the boat when we were airlifted). Thankfully we had our cell phones in our pockets (which weren't really working anyway due to the patchy service in the area). We had no wallets. No money.

Inside a small lounge-type-room, the airport had a gas fireplace, which thankfully worked since we were cold and wet! We set to drying out and warming up. (and with no diapers for Atlas, I was wondering how we were going to handle that!) Phone lines at the airport were also down, so I tried sending texts to my sister-in-law. I would write one and press send, and my phone would work on sending the one message, finally getting through after 15-20 minutes. Miraculously, we received a call from Andy's brother-in-law. We gave him messages to relay to my brother to get someone to retrieve us from the airport.  After much waiting, our messages got through and my sister-in-law was able to send a text indicating that my parents were going to come get us. We waited.

Two pregnant women in labor, with their delivery nurses, came and went (in helicopters), and we saw a giant helicopter bringing many seniors who had been rescued from their building. Men in buses came to take these people to emergency shelters in two neighboring towns. One of the seniors, my dear friend Adele, was worried about her husband, whom she hadn't been able to contact all day.

10:30pm After several hours, my parents arrived, having had to travel through many detours on account of flooding over major highways. They had gotten out of High River with both their vehicles loaded up with food, clothing, and other goods. I was still unsure of where my sister was at this point. My sister with her husband, and my parents all live on the side of town that never floods. It is not on the flood plane. But I believe they were evacuating people from that side of town at that time as well.

We loaded up into my parents' vehicles - Andy with my Mom, and I with my Dad, buckling my two little boys into the back seat of his truck. Without their car seats, they looked so tiny in that large back seat! As we sped away from the airport, I looked at my boys in the back seat, letting it all sink in, and thinking how surreal this all was. What was to happen to us now?