HIGH RIVER — The mayor of a flood-ravaged Alberta community where residents are anxiously waiting for word of when they may be able to return says officials are close to announcing a timeline for allowing people to at least check on their homes.
“I can’t tell you how badly I want to have everybody back in High River,” said Emile Blokland of High River. “But we have to make sure the community is safe before we let them return to the town.”
Dave Galea of Alberta Emergency Management said Wednesday that a mandatory evacuation for the town of 13,000 remained in effect.
“The leadership of the town has to provide a safe environment for their citizens and that’s the No. 1 priority,” he said at a briefing in Edmonton. “That’s what’s happening now.”
He said a search of all buildings in the town to ensure nobody was trapped had been completed. Officials were testing the safety of roads and bridges. Only after that would crews begin to restore town services.
There was a reminder of the risks that come with flooding of such magnitude when police released autopsy results in Calgary for a woman found dead in her home on the weekend.
Deputy police chief Roger Chaffin said the 83-year-old accidentally drowned in her ground-floor apartment that was partially below-grade.
Chaffin said city police were at the woman’s door last Thursday night to tell her about a mandatory evacuation and she said she would be leaving. He said the woman didn’t have mobility issues and there were no indications that she needed help.
Earlier reports suggested the woman stayed because she didn’t want to leave her cat behind.
Blokland said the disaster that befell High River last week when raging water from the Highwood River swamped the town is on par with wildfires that destroyed one-third of the northern Alberta community of Slave Lake in 2011.
Evacuees there were put on buses and driven around the town so that they could safely inspect the damage. Slave Lake then staged the return of residents in three parts — essential workers such as hospital, utilities and municipal staff first; then staff from businesses, banks and grocery stores and finally other residents.
In High River, about 300 people ignored the mandatory order to leave and many who did go have been pressing to be allowed to return.
Blokland said Tuesday that the town simply wasn’t ready yet.
“We do not have sanitary sewer. We have no water for those folks. When they get here we have no gas for their cars. We have no grocery store open. We don’t have a medical centre. We don’t have protective services for them. We don’t have a drug store for them.
“It is not safe to be in our community.”
Some have threatened to go to court, but Blokland said he was too busy trying to get the town back on its feet to pay attention to that.
While hundreds of people in High River, Medicine Hat, Calgary and other communities were trying to get back in, campers making plans for the upcoming long weekend were being warned to stay out.
Galea advised outdoor enthusiasts to steer clear of backcountry spots damaged by flooding.
“It’s important for people to check and make sure that the campgrounds that they intend to go to are still open,” he said.
“Many have been closed as a result of the flooding situation.”
Galea urged backcountry enthusiasts to heed posted closures.
“People should obey the closing signs. When a park is closed, it’s closed for reasons of safety.”
Galea pointed out that in Kananaskis Country, a popular recreational area west of Calgary, more than 1,200 campers had to be moved after flooding began last week.
He also issued a stern warning to boaters tempted by flood-swollen rivers.
“They put their lives at risk for the thrill of being on fast water,” he said. “It puts the first responders at risk, who are going to have to rescue them when things go bad.
“The first responders are busy enough dealing with the aftermath of the flooding and shouldn’t have to worry about stupidity.”
A list of which campgrounds are closed and which are open is on the government of Alberta’s website.