The Wales Movie Theatre in High River

Life still not normal after floods

Deborah Huisman is still grieving the loss of 41 years of memories.

HIGH RIVER — Deborah Huisman is still grieving the loss of 41 years of memories.

She and her husband, Gerry, watched all of their belongings wash away when a wall of water hit their dream home in High River, Alta., in June.

“You know people just say to us, ‘It is just stuff,’ but it’s our stuff,” Huisman said June 22 as she cried at the roadblock into the town. “We worked so hard and everybody at the end of the day just wants to go home.”

Six months later, Deborah, 59, and Gerry, 61, are living in a room they’ve rented in Calgary as their wait continues to get back home.

“The grieving process was hard. I never cried so much in my life. My husband said, ‘When are you going to stop crying?’ I said, ‘I have to cry,”’ said Huisman, sitting at a table in a coffee shop.

“The other day I was in Peavey Mart and all the Christmas things were out and I actually stood in the aisle and I cried because 40 years of collecting treasures is gone.

“I just want to get back in the house this year. That’s what’s driving us to be positive and to help as many people as we can.”

The water receded long ago in southern Alberta. The cleanup is done and the rebuild is on. Committees have been struck and are churning out plans to prevent floods in the future.

Still, a lot of pain and uncertainty remain after what has been labelled the most costly natural disaster in Canadian history — $6 billion by some estimates.

Cities and towns from the Rocky Mountains in the province’s west all the way east to Medicine Hat were damaged. High River, a town of nearly 13,000 just southwest of Calgary, was the hardest hit when torrential rains dumped 350 millimetres of water over a two-day period.

The Highwood River flooded much of the community. Downtown streets turned to raging rivers. It took weeks to pump water from one neighbourhood called the Hamptons.

More than 1,000 people throughout southern Alberta remain out of their homes and are living in extensive temporary housing camps or hotels. Many of the displaced are from High River, where whole subdivisions need to be rebuilt.

Many businesses downtown remain dark. Some have temporarily moved into trailers; others have closed. The historic Wales Movie Theatre still lists Hangover 3 on the marquee. That movie was released on DVD in October.

The road to recovery hasn’t been smooth.

With home insurance policies not covering damage from overland flooding, it’s been up to the government to cover the some costs.

The province announced its funding formula this summer, but it only covers “basic levels of finish” — vinyl siding, asphalt shingles, basic-quality carpet and laminated counter tops.

The government is offering buyouts to 254 homeowners living in floodways at 100 per cent of their home’s tax-assessed value. But there was controversy over how the floodway maps were drawn.

Some homes were buyout eligible, but undamaged during the flooding. Other homes where heavily damaged, but weren’t in the eligible zone, to the dismay of their owners.

The province announced in December that only 46 families of the 254 had agreed to move.

Recently, a group of High River residents who wanted to be bought out, but weren’t eligible, were awarded arbitration after they argued their homes were sacrificed as the province tried to rid the community of water.

There are huge projects being considered to help in the future.

Reviews are set to begin on constructing a diversion channel around High River and on a dry dam upstream of Calgary. The province has also said it will give money to the city of Calgary to study the merits of an underground diversion channel to take water from the Glenmore Reservoir to the Bow River.

“I think we need to be a lot better than we were before. Going back to normal isn’t an option for me. We need to be a lot better,” said High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass.

“Once the mitigation stuff is done … and we get the diversion canal started, that will really, really show the confidence that people’s lives and investments are really protected in High River. I’m extremely optimistic.”

The province says it knows it has a lot of work to do.

“When we look at the overall progress, and you think about mitigation, we’re many years down the road before completing all of that, particularly in the downtown core of High River,” said Rick Fraser, the minister responsible for the community’s recovery.

“Our hearts go out to the people in High River and other flood- affected areas and we know it’s a difficult time. We’re with them and we’re not going to give up.”

Realtor Jamie Ellice is hoping to be back in his home in the Hamptons before he and his fiancee, Christy, get married on June 7.

His house, which had just been completed, has been stripped to its studs and the hardwood floors have been removed. Some parts of the home survived, but for all intents and purposes it’s back to Square 1.

“Christy and I got engaged in this house,” said Ellice, who is still waiting for $163,000 in Alberta government disaster money. “In June we were talking about how things were going. I was out fishing one day and sent her a quick text and told her how happy I was with everything, with our life and our brand new house.

“Within a week, who would have known something like this could have thrown you so topsy-turvy?”

It’s been a trying time, he said. The couple is living in the basement of a friend’s home in High River.

“I can honestly say we’ve both taken a step back. I have much more stress, my anxiety level can tip quickly and I get mad for almost no reason.”

The Huismans are also waiting to receive their disaster relief money.

Retirement, which was originally scheduled for next year, has been put off. The water took that with it, too.

“This was totally devastating. The whole town was affected so there will be scars, because there’s going to be a lot of old heritage homes torn down,” Deborah Huisman said.

“Back to normal? It will be a new normal because I don’t think we’re ever going to be back the way we were,” she suggested.

“I want to make a life for us again in our little house and be happy again.

“You get mad at the powers that be upstairs and think, ‘Why did you do this to us?’ I never got any answers but, yeah, I have come to a peace.”

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