Some residents in the flood-ravaged town of High River began returning home Saturday afternoon, as officials cautioned that it could be at least another month before those in the hardest-hit areas are allowed back in.

Alberta officials announced Friday that approximately 5,000 residents who live in the northwest part of the town would be allowed in beginning midday.

“We're putting every resource into inspecting businesses, cleaning the streets and making sure that when people return to their homes that whatever colour code they are, they can get back to a normal life and start the recovery phase, and rebuilding phase of High River,” MLA for Calgary-South East Rick Fraser said in a press conference Saturday.

Inspectors have graded each home in the High River by colour:

  • Green: No damage
  • Yellow: Minor damage
  • Orange: Damaged, can’t be lived in until it’s cleaned and renovated
  • Red: Uninhabitable

On Saturday, residents of 1,817 homes were allowed back into the community to view the damage. Of those homes, 639 were classified green, 318 yellow, 716 orange, and 141 red.

“Our hearts go out to those people that can’t get into their homes today,” Fraser said.

The town’s 13,000 residents were forced to flee and seek higher ground eight days ago as floodwaters devastated large swaths of southern Alberta. While some bunked with friends and family, others found accommodation at emergency reception centres.

As residents begin the recovery process, many said they are determined to overcome the worst disaster in the town’s history.

“If you can’t keep some sort of positive attitude you may not get through this,” Charlotte Jackson said after receiving her pass. “I intend to get through this. I’ve got a life to live.”

Others expressed relief that they were finally able to get home and start the clean-up. “I know there’s a lot of challenges in town but there’s a lot of dry areas,” said Ryan Domes. “Good news for us. Bad news for most people. We feel for them.”

The Red Cross mobilized in High River early Saturday morning, bringing kits to help returning residents. The kits, which include mops, gloves, masks and bleach, are also being distributed in other parts of flood-damaged Alberta.

Ron and Danuta Kroekoer were also among the first group being let back into High River and say they are ready to help their community.

“We’ve got a room in the basement, we’re going to clean it out, make sure it’s livable and open up the bed to a couple that need a place to stay,” Ron Kroekoer said.

Residents whose homes are in the hardest-hit areas have been told that it will be at least three to five weeks before they’ll be able to return – if their homes are habitable at all. Temporary housing is being built for those who cannot return home.

The re-entry, which will happen in phases, comes as the Alberta government takes over the recovery and rebuilding of High River. Emergency operations, programs and services will now be covered by the province.

The town’s mayor, Emile Blokland, requested provincial help Friday, saying the situation was more difficult than the municipal council could handle.