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.


  1. This is written like a trilogy - leave your reader hanging for the next instalment!

    1. That's a funny perspective, Anna! I haven't written them for the purpose of suspense, it's just that it's such a monumental story for us, and I have so little time to sit down at the computer these days.

      We're still not living at home, which means we've been homeless for over a month now. So, by breaking up our story, it's easier for me to tackle it. I thankfully was able to save my computer, and I didn't want to write anything until I could put pictures with it, so I had to wait until we got back into our house to retrieve my computer. Then I had to wait until my part of the cleaning was somewhat done. But finding time in my days now is a tricky sort of thing.

      I'm glad you're on edge for the next installment! I will try not to disappoint, but I'm afraid that it won't be a trilogy - there are many parts to this chapter of our lives.