I love a bit of ironic humour as much as the next person so it was a macabre yet laugh out loud moment when Highway to Hell came on the radio station Monday as I drove the last little stretch down #2 southbound for High River, Alberta, my flood-ravaged former home town.
I’d seen tons of footage online and been following Twitter with obsession as things unfolded, and I know it sounds cliche to say so but it’s true, there’s nothing that can actually prepare a person to see something like that. After two full weeks since the flood hit, people were allowed entry to my area of town so I headed back to see what was left.
The picturesque little town with its murals and charm and wonderfully friendly community, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop to the West, the city of Calgary a mere 30 minute drive to the north, nothing but wide open blue skies, God-spun golden prairie all around it and a river coursing through, is now the Canadian equivalent of New Orleans after Katrina hit.
Essentially every house and every street and every community looked like these photos. People were gutting their flooded homes and piling the debris on the lawns as high as the roof line in many cases. It was overwhelming to take in. It became horribly apparent just how badly off the whole town is and how terribly everyone is suffering.
The stories of survival and destruction are too numerous to share here. All I know is this is just the beginning of the disaster for many people. Some will never recover financially or emotionally. Some will profit or even shed an old skin for a newer, better one but for the most part it is pure devastation.
These are photos of my neighbours across the street and next door.
And then the miracle for a few of us. Water is a strange beast. I should know better than anyone having been a river guide for so many years but even I was stunned. Somehow, due to the shape of the land, street and structures, a couple of our condo buildings were left marooned in a lake that was 12 feet deep in places. The place is a straight walk-in at ground level. Not one single stair. I ended up with about 2 feet of backed up sewer water in my “basement,” a contaminated fridge and a kicked in door from the RCMP looking for survivors. We could see the water lines around the building where it had piled up and yet somehow those couple of buildings went essentially unscathed.
Within a few weeks or months I should be able to get a renter back into it.
There’s relief and there’s guilt for sure. I’m certainly not celebrating. Sitting at the rodeo grounds disaster relief centre was a sombre affair. I could feel peoples’ anger, frustration, gut-wrenching sadness and after having survived two weeks and a bit of chronic chaos, fatigue. Lives on hold. Retirements tanked. Brand new homes and young families and start-up businesses ruined.
There just aren’t words for how terrible I feel. And helpless. I can’t really think what to do to help. There’s just no salve for this wound. It’s going to be years rebuilding to return the town to even half its splendor. In the wake of the flood, the community will need waves of assistance and others to spell them off when the task surrounding them becomes too much to bear.
I ended up in High River because of the river. The autumn after I finished university I went West but Calgary had grown to a size I didn’t enjoy so after wintering on a Boer goat farm near Balzac I spent my first Easter weekend driving around to all the small towns surrounding Calgary looking for where I wanted to settle down.
I landed in High River at the end of the day, got some Chinese food and then sort of wound up in George Lane Park in the heart of the town. I got out of the car and walked around, all the gorgeous old trees shading me, and then up an embankment to a walking path where I then discovered that the town had a river.
I love water and being around it. I made my way down the bank to the rocky shore and stood there listening to the Highwood’s current and I kid you not, I heard a new song evolve in my head, lyrics and everything, as if it had been sitting in my brain dormant just waiting for the right moment to be released. I started singing it to myself and smiling because I knew I was home. I felt the spinning I’d had inside of me for so many years come to a standstill and calm overcame me. I stayed for 10 years before the winds carried me on but I never let go of the little condo, not quite ready to say goodbye to High River forever.
It was a quick trip home to check on that condo. I had more wacky weather than I could imagine. It rained cats and dogs nearly all the way to Alberta with a storm formation that made all the alarm bells in my head go off. When I reached Iricana I saw that I’d had good reason to be afraid as it had dumped all of this hail on them ahead of me. My car bottomed out it was so deep!!
Then coming home I had hot sun the whole way and had to stop twice for ice-cream! Well I didn’t really but the dogs did not protest! I’d open the hatchback and move the cone from left to right so they could each take a turn licking. And then they’d sleep until the next pit stop.
Canola is just starting to flower and smell pretty and then by the time I got north of Prince Albert the highway was flooded again from too much rain and I thought the car was going to stall driving through. From flood to flood! And now I’m home and the hot, hot day is working itself into a thunder storm so I should get this posted before we loose power.