Trish and Bruce Buckley and their children helped a friend sort through the debris of his flooded house in High River...then became featured pioneer family in the Calgary Stampede parade.

Trish and Bruce Buckley and their children helped a friend sort through the debris of his flooded house in High River...then became featured pioneer family in the Calgary Stampede parade.

‘Pioneer family’ has surreal journey

The romance and heartbreak of being Albertan were experienced by one Red Deer family within a span of days.

The romance and heartbreak of being Albertan were experienced by one Red Deer family within a span of days.

Trish and Bruce Buckley and their children went from helping a friend sort through the debris of his flooded house in High River to being the featured pioneer family in the Calgary Stampede parade earlier this month.

“It was surreal,” said Trish, of trading a respirator and disposable coveralls for a long skirt and bonnet for the celebratory annual parade on Friday, July 5.

The mood was much more subdued on Tuesday, July 2, when the Buckleys first went to the aid of Bruce’s childhood friend, Richard Murray. He and his wife Carroll Christoffersen had 3 1/2 feet of water seep into their basement when the Sheep River over-spilled its banks last month.

Murray, who had been living with relatives during the evacuation, was finally allowed to return to his flood-ravaged home.

As his Southern Alberta town was still a closed community patrolled by police, he was only able to obtain two entry passes for friends to help him start the massive cleanup effort.

The Buckleys couldn’t believe the devastation they saw upon entering High River. Four school buses stood half submerged in water and there was rubble in the trees, said Bruce, a Red Deer lawyer.

Some houses remained flooded right up to the second storey.

“There was a lake covering the whole northeast side of town.”

One of the most unlikely sights was twisted metal railroad tracks that resembled a giant rollercoaster bump. They must have been ripped from the ground on one side by fast-flowing water, said Trish, who was also struck by the sight of an abandoned boat lying across the tracks.

“You see it on TV, but you never really get an appreciation for what it’s like until you are there,” said Bruce. What cameras can’t fully capture is the dried muck covering everything in High River. “Everything is dusty looking and covered in brown river silt,” said Bruce.

This toxic sludge contains backed-up sewage, traces of fuel and battery acid from submerged vehicles, household chemicals and other hazards.

The Buckleys donned the respirators, coveralls and gloves they had bought in Red Deer, and proceeded to clear items from the Murray house, which at that point had neither running water nor electricity.

The Murrays, like nearly everybody in High River, first had to get rid of their fridge and freezer.

After weeks of no electricity, these appliances full of spoiled food were considered biohazards and had to be hauled away by the busy, constantly circling garbage trucks.

Bruce began moving to the front lawn damaged items from the smelly basement, including furniture, appliances, water-logged books, and four boxes of ruined clothing, stored for Richard’s daughter who’d just returned from university.

While sorting through the “goopy” mess of thick sludge along the basement floor, Bruce said, “You try not to think too much about what’s in it.”

He also helped his friend sort through family photos and other treasured mementos. The Buckleys took pictures of Murray’s childrens’ artwork, Christmas ornaments and other sentimental items that had to be trashed. Only some plastic, ceramic and metal items could be set aside for cleaning.

Trish helped remove things from the rest of the house. These had not been flooded, but needed to be cleaned from toxic grit. She packed up all clothing, sheets and towels and later took them back to Red Deer for laundering. She removed books, CDs and kitchen items so shelves and cupboards could be wiped down.

During this effort, which carried on over four days and later involved the Buckleys’ children, Alex, 14, and Mollie, 12, (when minors could be admitted to town), the most generous and helpful sides of human nature emerged.

Trish said the Salvation Army and Red Cross supplied drinking water and food for volunteers, and neighbours brought coffee, contributed labour and traded in-demand items, such as detergent that arrests mold growth.

People whose houses had no damage were doing what they could for those that did, recalled Trish.

By Thursday, Murray was able to borrow power, via an extension cord, from the neighbours and Alex and Mollie were diving in to help.

The Buckleys had to change gears early Friday morning, when they were previously committed to ride with relatives in an old-fashioned “Quebec wagon” in the Calgary Stampede parade.

Bruce’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was James Hornby, one of the earliest homesteaders, who arrived in Calgary in 1886.

This year, the Southern Alberta Pioneers and Descendants society was honouring the Hornby family.

The Buckleys threw on clothing that would pass for pioneer attire and began smiling and waving to the throngs of people lining the streets of downtown Calgary.

It was a bizarre feeling to be following a marching band down avenues that had also been flooded so recently, said Trish.

“Our minds were with Richard and Carroll. We felt like we should be making more progress in High River.”

The family returned to help the Murrays by 2 p.m. that afternoon, when more volunteers were being admitted into the town.

On Saturday, July 6, Trish was able to go to a centralized location to recruit three helpers. “It was a frenzied day,” recalled Bruce, dealing with contractors who were hired by the insurance company (which provided some flood coverage because the home had sewage backup). The contractors needed everything removed from the basement so they could rip out drywall.

Garbage included moldy drywall and studs from the basement, as well as a ruined furnace and water heater. “The whole basement had to be taken right down to the cement,” said Bruce.

When power was finally restored to the home, everybody cheered.

Trish mostly remembers community members and volunteers calmly pulling together in the heat and dust. “It was exhausting, even the kids worked 10-hour days, not stopping for breaks.”

In the end, the Red Deer family was left with a heightened respect for the goodness of people — some of whom had travelled from out of province to help in High River.

They were also left in awe of the damage Mother Nature can wreak. “When you look at how that railway track was lifted up and twisted on its side, you know what kind of force it takes to do that,” said Trish.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com