Water levels along the Saskatchewan River are beginning to recede in Medicine Hat, Alta., but evacuees are not expected to return home for a few days.

City officials continue to warn residents in the southern Alberta city to keep away from mandatory evacuation zones despite experiencing lower than anticipated flood waters.

The city was expecting the water flow in the river to reach 6,000 cubic metres per second, but it peaked at about 5,300 cubic metres.

“We prepared for that level. We never reached it, but we got close to it,” Mayor Norm Boucher told CTV News. “We’re doing good.”

More than 400 Canadian Forces soldiers worked with emergency personnel and local volunteers to build protective barriers around the community.

But even with the preparations, Medicine Hat’s director of emergency management said an estimated 1,000 homes have been hit by the high water.

“Substantial flooding continues to impact our berms and (they) could fail suddenly,” Ron Robinson said. "This is why there is an urgent need for people to be safe."

People living in evacuation zones likely won’t be able to return home for a few days, he added.

Medicine Hat resident Mike Olson expects to see flood damage once he returns to his home, which is located in a low-lying neighbourhood.

“This is devastating enough, looking at all this,” he told CTV News. “It’s a bad flood.”

Despite the flooding damage, city officials began re-opening certain roads and bridges on Monday, and some evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Rebuilding efforts

On Monday, Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced $1 billion in funding to begin the first phase of the flood recovery.

“I promise you on behalf of the Government of Alberta that we will do everything that it takes to ensure the people can rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities,” Redford said at a news conference.

She said it could take a decade for the Alberta to recover from the historic flood.

Early estimates of the damaged are pegged at between $3 billion and $5 billion, according to the Bank of Montreal.

Redford said the government will provide pre-loaded debit cards to displaced residents to help with their immediate housing needs and day-to-day purchases.

Those who qualify will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child.

High flows in the South Saskatchewan River caused widespread damage across southern Alberta in 1995. This time around, Medicine Hat had time to prepare, Boucher said.

Soldiers have been working to build a dike around the city’s drinking water treatment plant, which remains protected.

Evacuee Allen Krassman said he was told to leave his third-floor community housing apartment and taken to a motel, where he’s expecting to stay for at least four days.

Krassman said he’s experienced several floods in the region over the years, but “this tops them all.”

Across the province, 23 communities remain under a state of emergency after heavy rains triggered flooding along the Bow and Elbow Rivers, devastating parts of Calgary.

Twelve provincial highways are still closed, while access has been restricted to three others. About 2,300 troops have been deployed across Alberta to help with flood response and recovery.

The town of High River, about 37 kilometres south of Calgary, is almost entirely flooded and 80 per cent of the community has no power or basic services.

‘A complete disaster’

Alberta MP Jason Kenney said Monday he flew over High River and noted it was one of the hardest-hit communities.

“It’s just a complete disaster,” Kenney told Power Play. “At least half of that town is completely under water and no one is going home for some time.”

At least three people have died during the flooding and a fourth person is missing.

Widespread damage was also reported in the community of Exshaw, Alta., where about 25 per cent of residents have been told they will never be able to return to their homes.

“People are basically stranded,” Kenney said. “They can’t get in or out for four or five days.”

Kenney added that a number of First Nation reserves in southern Alberta have been affected by the

floods, with 1,300 people removed from one community.

Smiling firefighter

While thousands of emergency personnel, Canadian Forces soldiers and volunteers have put their lives at risk to aid flood victims, one firefighter from Nanton, Alta., has become the face of the rescue efforts.

Firefighter Shawn Wiebe was photographed by the QMI Agency smiling at an elderly woman cradled in his arms as he made his way through deep floodwater.

The photo went viral late last week, making the rounds on social media sites.

The smile was reportedly prompted by the woman telling Weibe: “I haven’t been carried like this since my wedding day.”

With a report from CTV’s Jill Macyshon