'We don't have a flood. We have a disaster,' says High River mayor
Published Tuesday, June 25, 2013 7:53AM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 25, 2013 11:54PM EDT
As Calgary and other flood-ravaged Alberta communities shift their focus on the massive cleanup effort, frustrations are mounting in the town hardest hit by the disaster.
In High River, a community of about 13,000 south of Calgary, streets that were filled with water are now covered in mud, in some places a metre deep.
Despite everyone in the town being ordered to evacuate their homes, 300 residents refused to leave.
“We are not hurting nothing. We are protecting our homes. We are protecting the neighbourhood,” resident Rob Dennis said.
Dave Galea of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said those people who have ignored evacuation orders are not only endangering themselves, but also hampering local rescue and recovery efforts.
Those who’ve decided to stay home are running out of potable water and food. If first responders have to resupply them, that will take the focus off other important work, Galea told reporters Tuesday.
“It’s also a point of friction between residents that have evacuated and those who are staying in their home,” he said. “Frustrations are running high.”
High River Mayor Emile Blokland urged people to stay away so that emergency crews can do their jobs.
“It is not safe to be in our community” he said. “We don’t have a flood, we have a disaster.”
Blokland also said the province will appoint a special minister to oversee the recovery efforts in High River.
Meanwhile, officials in Medicine Hat are allowing some evacuees to return to their homes, but are warning them that damage could be severe. Inspectors will go in with residents to determine the structural safety of each house. Some people may not be able to stay if their homes are still flooded or have no utilities.
The lack of electricity or running water didn’t stop dozens of people from sticking it out in High River, officials say. A door-to-door search of about 3,000 homes conducted by members of the RCMP and Canadian Forces found 303 people who defied evacuation orders.
Eight people had to be rescued on Monday, RCMP Insp. Garrett Woolsey said.
“Please stay out of High River. Do not come back,” he said.
Asked whether police are planning to forcibly remove people from their homes, Woolsey said that would be “an absolute last resort.”
Alberta's Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths was visibly angry when he addressed the issue.
"For those people who are in High River who refused to leave, we have low supplies of water. There is no sewer hooked up yet, so every time they flush the toilet it runs back into the street, and there's no grocery store operating," he said.
"I'm not and the community will not direct ... time, energy and resources for those who refuse to leave. If they care about their community and the people in it, they need to leave."
But provincial Opposition leader Danielle Smith, who lives in High River, said some people should be allowed to return to their homes.
"People are at their wit’s end and I can understand why,” she told The Canadian Press. “We have medical doctors now saying we have to start getting into those homes so they can be cleaned up; otherwise we have a bigger problem.”
Smith said she was among those defying the evacuation order, staying behind to rescue pets.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called the flooding in High River an “unbelievable emergency” that hasn’t been seen in generations. He said Tuesday the city will try to help the town and its residents as much as possible.
Galea said local authorities are doing everything they can to keep High River safe and protect the infrastructure, but about 80 per cent of the town remains without basic services.
Calgary cleanup underway
It was a different story in Calgary Tuesday, where most of the evacuees were able to return to their neighbourhoods and start cleaning up their mud-covered, soggy homes.
The city has allowed residents of all but one small section of the neighbourhood of Inglewood to return to their homes.
Power was being restored to the downtown core at a faster rate than anticipated and some trains were also running. However, more than 3,000 downtown buildings still have to be inspected before people can return to their businesses and offices.
Enmax – Calgary’s energy provider – is facing several challenges as workers inspect underground vaults that contain transformers and electrical equipment for water damage.
Progress is also being made with the cleanup of the Calgary Stampede grounds. Organizers announced Monday that the show will go on as planned, beginning July 5.
Across the city, many residents were seen shovelling mud and piling up destroyed possessions outside their houses Tuesday morning.
On Monday, twice as many volunteers as expected answered the call to help with cleanup efforts.
One damage restoration expert says it’s important to remove flood-damaged furniture, clothes, books and other items as soon as possible.
Mould will typically start growing in flood-damaged homes within 48 to 72 hours, Lorne McIntyre, of Gus Group, told CTV’s Canada AM.
“You want to take precautions when you’re handling that stuff,” he said, advising Albertans who are unsure how to handle mouldy items to contact restoration professionals.
Alberta Health Services is also warning people that the floodwater inside their homes can be contaminated with viruses, bacteria and parasites.
McIntyre said it’s likely that restoration companies from other provinces are already working in Alberta and retailers are scrambling to accommodate a spike in demand for building materials.
Meanwhile, the military has begun the process of pulling some troops from areas where the situation has stabilized.
About 2,300 soldiers were deployed across southern Alberta to assist search-and-rescue efforts and help build barriers to protect critical infrastructure from floodwaters. Now that conditions are improving, the number of troops in less-affected areas will be reduced, Brigadier-General Christian Juneau said.
Soldiers who were sent to Calgary were recalled Monday evening, Fire Chief Bruce Burrell said.
Businesses face uphill battle
Adam Legge, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce said many businesses in Calgary are going to struggle post-flood.
“I’ve got some concerns over the ability of small businesses to be able to sustain what really is a triple whammy of impacts,” Legge told CTV’s Power Play.
Businesses hit by flooding have lost significant revenue, sustained damage to their stores, and lost inventory to water damage.
“Statistics out of the U.S. where they have a lot more natural disasters show that almost one in two businesses affected by natural disasters never reopen their doors,” Legge said.
On Tuesday, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce released a letter to both the prime minister and the premier asking for a variety of support to small businesses, including grant assistance and leniency on meeting tax deadline on June 30.
It is still unsure what role government will play to help businesses get back on their feet.
“We’re hoping that both the provincial and federal governments will come out with a more strong position on making sure that small businesses are supported as a result of the floods,” Legge said.
Fifty per cent of businesses remain closed in Calgary and it could be some time before they reopen.
The cost of disaster
Initial estimates peg the flooding damage in Alberta between $3 billion and $5 billion, according to the Bank of Montreal.
By comparison, the devastating ice storm that blanketed regions between eastern Ontario and Nova Scotia in 1998 cost $6.2 billion in today’s dollars.
The provincial government has announced it will provide $1 billion in funding to start the first phase of flood recovery,
Displaced residents will be provided with pre-loaded debit cards to help them with their immediate housing needs and day-to-day purchases, Premier Alison Redford said Monday. Those who qualify will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child.
Redford said it could take a decade for the province to fully recover from the floods.
The federal government says it’s too early to say what kind of financial help would be coming from Ottawa.
With files from The Canadian Press