Residents of flood-ravaged Alberta community wait to return home
The Alberta government says it will be days before residents in the flood-ravaged community of High River can return to their homes.
Provincial officials announced Wednesday that a staged “re-entry” plan for the people of High River is close to being finalized.
“I’m very pleased to tell you the thinking around this is in days, not weeks,” said Rick Fraser, the government member appointed to oversee the town's recovery.
The community of 13,000, located south of Calgary, was one of the hardest hit by the disaster and much of it remains without basic services.
“Our first priority is the people of High River,” Fraser said during a news conference on Wednesday.
Despite the province’s commitment to the flood-soaked community, many evacuess are frustrated they haven’t been allowed to return home so they assess the damage.
Displaced residents on Wednesday showed up at barricades in High River, demanding they be allowed in.
“Our homes are all back there,” Roy Matheus told CTV News. “In my neighbourhood there’s no problem. They say there are sewer problems -- well, let’s put Porta Potties in there….Let’s make the people, the residents part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
But according to the province’s minister of municipal affairs, residents are not being allowed back in for safety reason.
“The municipalities find new challenges every time they turn around,” Doug Griffiths told reporters at a news conference in High River.
He said workers had discovered a new sink hole a couple of days ago. “If we had turned people onto a road which we had presumed safe and someone drove in and was killed because they fell 20 feet into a hole, that would be irresponsible and we would get a lot of criticism.”
Earlier this week Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced that displaced residents will be provided with pre-loaded debit cards to help them with their immediate housing needs and day-to-day purchases. Those who qualify will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child.
Fraser said the residents of High River will be the first to receive their debit cards. He said the government will set up sites to disperse the debit cards elsewhere in Alberta by Sunday.
He added that those who have refused to leave their homes in High River will not receive the money.
“These people will need to leave High River to become eligible,” he said.
About 300 people ignored the town’s evacuation orders, drawing the ire of municipal and provincial authorities.
Some have threatened to go to court in an attempt to force the authorities to let them back in, but the community’s mayor said he’s not paying attention to that.
Redford said Wednesday she understands the frustrations of the people of High River, but she said the situation in the town is much different than Calgary, where residents have been allowed to return home.
“In the city of Calgary, people could move back… the water continued to run, it was possible to get the electricity grid and the sewer system back up and running quickly,” she said. “In High River, unfortunately that isn’t the case.”
She said divers are needed to gain access to homes in High River and officials have confirmed there is E.coli in the water.
“We don’t want to jeopardize people’s health or safety. We want to get people back as soon as possible,” she said. “But we want to do it in a safe way.
“We don’t want people getting infected with diseased water,” she continued.
The situation is also dire in the Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary, which remains under a state of emergency.
Chief Fred Rabbit Carrier said he hasn’t even been able to properly assess the damage in the community, and poviding non-perishable food and potable water for evacuees and residents remains a challenge.
About 1,000 of Siksika’s 6,000 people have been forced out of their homes. It’s estimated that the flood damaged about 250 houses, and some of them will likely not be saved.
Pre-loaded debit cards will be provided to First Nations members, as well as temporary foreign workers in the province.
Police confirm one death in Calgary
In Calgary, police have confirmed that an elderly woman drowned at her home in the evacuation zone during last week’s flooding.
An autopsy revealed the cause of death was accidental drowning, police said. The 83-year-old woman’s body was found in a ground-level apartment near the Elbow River.
The woman was informed of the evacuation order and police believe she intended to obey it.
“At the time we believed she was complying and had no reason to believe she was unable to do that on her own,” Dep. Chief Roger Chaffin of the Calgary police said.
The woman’s name will not be released.
Three other people also died in the floods near High River.
Officials say the water levels where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet is still three times higher than normal.
Flood cleanup continued across southern Alberta and efforts are underway to mobilize Calgary’s downtown core.
Eighty per cent of the roads have been opened to the public, allowing most residents to return home. However, city officials said the local state of emergency will be extended for another seven days, which gives the city powers to use all available resources and speed up the recovery process.
Meanwhile, 11,000 residences and businesses -- most of them in the downtown core -- remain without power.
“Nobody has said anything to us. We just heard rumours,” Mohammed Kanji, the owner of a pharmacy, told CTV News. Kanji is relying on a generator and portable lights to continue providing service to his customers, some of whom rely on him to provide life-saving medication.
“We’ve been delivering. It has been costing extra but most of the regular customers we managed to get a hold of them,” he said.
Laureen Harper helps in clean-up efforts
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wife, Laureen, was one of the many volunteers lending their time to clean-up efforts. On Wednesday, Harper helped unload trucks of supplies in Morley, Alta.
The Trans-Canada Highway west of Calgary reopened to public traffic Wednesday afternoon for the first time since flooding forced its closure last Thursday. Alberta Transportation said one lane in each direction is open on the four-lane highway and speed limits have been reduced to 60 kilometres an hour.
The provincial government has pledged $1 billion in funding to start the first phase of flood recovery. Ottawa has yet to announce how much money the federal government will give.
Redford said she’s expecting it will take some time for the federal government to pay its share, based on Ottawa’s “track record”.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not going to pay, but they certainly don’t pay up front,” she told reporters during a news conference. “We understand that and we’re prepared to deal with it.”
Initial estimates peg the flooding damage between $3 billion and $5 billion, but that figure could rise.
With files from The Canadian Press