Hell or high River – high river strong

When I visited Calgary in the aftermath immediately after the flood it was abnormally, well, normal. Driving in from Edmonton it didn't feel any different from the thousands of times I'd been there before. Same number of cars on the road. No major physical scarring. Just the old familiar feeling. Until I arrived in where the barricades of debris lined the street it didn't seem altered at all.

Arriving in High River was altogether different. Having only been to High River a few times it didn't have that same feeling of familiarity but that wasn't what was different. The moment you drove in you knew something big had happened to this little town.

Businesses we passed were either closed or has "Now Open" signs on them. Dirt, silt and rock were scattered around giving the appearance that you were in a river bed. A boat lay in the ditch of the main road seriously mangled. The railroad had earth washed out from underneath it in many places and actually twisted upside down one spot. The mobile home park made me think of bumper cars when your turn is over and they are powered down scattered throughout the track.

The Pet Emporium had a high water mark half way up the door which made me wonder what happened to the inventory.

Looking down the roads we passed we saw the same thing on every street: big steel bins, people in white coveralls, debris piled high. Businesses and homes with water lines midway up the wall. Some places looked like worst was cleaned up already. Some were only beginning to deal with mess.

When we arrived in my cousin's neighborhood it was clear some places were hit harder than others. One place had completely collapsed although I couldn't tell if it was a house or garage. Another place had a hole the size of a laundry basket right in the side of the house. Rob and Rachel considered themselves lucky as the flooding only affected the crawl space and went one foot high on the main floor. There is lots of work to be done but they know they are well off compared to some.

Throughout this whole event Rob and Rachel's luck has held. They were in the process of moving between properties so technically had possession of 2 properties when the floods hit. Thankfully the property they had sold had no damage whatsoever and the sale continued as planned. When they arrived at the house that was flooded they could see that they were lucky once again as big fifth wheel RV and a steel garbage bin from down the street had landed in their front yard without damaging their house.


A Day in the Life

Take a look around you and all that stuff you have around you. Imagine it all covered in water, best case scenario, sewage at the worst. Either way it's destroyed. And there may very little money coming your way to enable you to replace it - insurance might not cover it and disaster relief doesn't give you the full replacement value . You didn't have any time to get home from work to save anything. Thank god you got the cat out eventually- she was a little frazzled but otherwise fine. You come home to your house to work on it each evening and weekend as you continue to go to work during the day in borrowed clothes. Your struggling financially to replace general household items, pay the mortgage for a house that you can't live in and rent as well for the place you are living in temporarily. You also owe money on the truck that was at home when the water hit. You feel like you haven't seen your kids in weeks because they can't come with you, it's too dangerous. It's dangerous for you too - there is mold throughout the house and the sewage is clearly not great for your health either. Your leaning on all your friends and family - thank goodness they have been so great. You are so lucky because your neighbors just moved to Alberta from Ontario and they have no support system here yet so they are struggling except for the help of complete strangers who have come from all over to help. All in all, you are thankful you are all safe and sound.

High River from Above

This is where we are headed. I can't even begin to imagine the work ahead for these people.

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High River bound

We are heading to High River tomorrow first thing in the morning. We were planning on heading down anyways but as it turns out Rob was allowed back into his house today so the timing couldn't have worked out better.

Before leaving Sherwood Park we visited the Rona on Baseline Road where the manager was great. I told him that we were heading down to help in High River and he immediately agreed to help. I spent $450 and he saved me $100 of that. Thanks Shane!

We are heading to my Mom's house tonight where we will prep food for tomorrow. We still have a long night ahead and a long day tomorrow.

 

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Waiting soon at an end

We finally got the call. They are opening one section of High River Saturday at noon - the section my cousin and his wife live in. It has been so hard for me to be waiting - I can't imagine how long it has felt to them. Rob and Rachel were to be moving into their newly renovated place on the river the weekend they were evacuated. They also own a condo, which they sold but possession had not transferred yet, from which they were moving. Both places are their responsibility to clean-up.

They are being toured through High River tonight by bus, when they will get their first glimpse of what awaits them. Fingers crossed.

Beautiful Mess

I've take the kids back up to Sherwood Park till Saturday when we plan on coming south to hopefully get into High River. I've asked a few people to provide their perspectives so anyone visiting this blog will have fresh inspiration. Here is what my sister-in-law had to say:

When I saw the first photos of Cougar Creek raging in Canmore, it was unbelievable. Then came High River. Incomprehensible. That is to say I actually didn’t believe it. I mean, I understood that it wasn’t a hoax. I’m not that nuts. But it wasn’t sinking in just how serious this was. That it wasn’t just a couple of homes on the river with a foot of water in the basement.

So when my husband and I were evacuated from our Sunnyside home on Thursday night I was in the middle of baking cookies to take camping for the weekend. I didn’t see it coming at all. We live two city blocks from the river and the banks are high.

For me it was just a normal summer day and I couldn’t wait to hit the road. I didn’t realize that road would be Deerfoot south to Mahogany, where we’d spend the next four days living with friends while we wondered what would happen to our house and our condo.

We rent a home in Sunnyside and own a condo in Mission that we recently sold. Both were in the heart of the evacuation zones. But even with the constant stream of news coverage in several rooms of our friends’ house, it was hard to believe it was actually happening. In Mahogany the sun was shining, the lawn was dry, we had beer and games. It was like camping without the tent.

But as photos of our neighbourhoods started circulating, it started to become very real. Suddenly our sunny little world was clouded with the thought that we might not have a home to go back to.

We snuck back down to Sunnyside on the weekend and saw that our street was completely spared. One block over the storm sewers had become geysers and the water was rising, so we were very aware of how lucky we were.

Our condo was another story. It was a few days before we could get into Mission to see it, and it was immediately apparent that the entire first floor was gone. Electrical, mechanical, hallways, everything. Still, we felt lucky because our condo is on the fourth floor. We talked to one of our neighbours who lives on the first floor and she told us her fridge wasn’t even in the kitchen anymore. The water had risen so high that her appliances were floating. Everything she owned was gone.

We knew this could mean we’d see a cash call, our renter might leave and, worse, the recent sale of our condo might fall through. But there was nothing we could do about any of that except wait. So we headed to a friend’s place around the corner and stared at his house in disbelief. It was one block closer to the river and his basement was now a distant memory.

Where do you even start with that kind of mess? He’d already pulled a bunch of stuff out, so for those last couple of hours of daylight, all we did was stare and wonder, what’s next? By the end of the next day we had the entire basement ripped out to the bones.

We spent the entire week in Sunnyside, Mission and Roxboro, helping neighbours, friends and complete strangers gut their houses. A big thank you to my bosses who told us all to take the rest of the week off to volunteer. I know a lot of businesses did the same, despite the revenue it would cause them to lose.

To see the streets at a glance in those first few days was devastatingly sad. Photo albums, kids toys, so many books — all destroyed. But from thick of it, down in the wet, dark, sludge-filled basements it was surprisingly joyful.

That sounds ridiculous but it’s the truth. The people who owned these homes were actually smiling. They recognized that all their stuff was just that — stuff. Did it suck that it was gone? Hell yeah. It sucked hard. But every single one of them understood that someone else had it worse and that, despite all this mess, they would be just fine. Life would go on, even if it went on a little lighter.

And they were so, so grateful for all the help they received from friends and neighbours, and even people they’ve never seen before in their lives. That first day in Sunnyside, I heard several people ask “do you live around here” and when they found out many of the bodies hauling crumbling drywall and dripping insulation from their basements had ventured from all over the city, as well as Edmonton and Saskatchewan (and even from Bowness or Mission where they couldn’t yet get in to see their own houses), they were blown away.

One woman told me she may have lost a lot, but she was so glad to have made friends in the neighbours that she never knew before that day. People who had passed one another without ever saying a word were now hugging and laughing together. They were sharing tools and pumps and generators and food. Their lives were quite literally crumbling beneath them, but they were holding onto whatever they could — mostly their sanity — together.

Life for all Calgarians is slowly beginning to resemble something close to normal. The city has done an incredible job of restoring power, gas and roadways and, like many people, are probably looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Let’s hope our neighbours down in High River get there soon and do whatever we can to help them get there.

For us, the damage to our condo building is extensive and they’re saying it could be two months before anyone can move back into the building. Our renter is leaving and our sale hangs in the air, but if we’ve learned anything this week it’s that, in the grand scheme of things, none of that really matters.

I’ve never felt so tired, or inspired. Good night, Calgary.

 

A calgarian's perspective

This guest post has been contributed by my good friend Talia. Many thanks to you for your wonderful perspective:

I was born in Calgary and have spent most of my life here. I love this city and always have. Admittedly since the big boom hit Calgary I have often felt nostalgic for the “good old days” when Calgary was “just” 700,000 people and still somehow felt like a small town with a strong sense of community.

Since the floods hit last week that sense of nostalgia has now disappeared as the city that was once disconnected is again a strong knit community that feels like a large family. Those whose roots are here are reinvigorated. Those who have more recently joined our city are now experiencing what was historically very special about this place and are a part of what is making it great again… in fact, better than ever. The sense of community is contagious and spreading quickly.

I, like many others, have been glued to all reports on the floods since the skies opened and all hell broke loose last Thursday. I listened to CBC around the clock, had the news on, refreshed my facebook page continuously and joined every group associated with the floods. Heck I even got a Twitter account (@taliazink), which I swore I would never do. I felt a compulsive need to see everything. Each picture I saw was more shocking than the last, each video clip made the event feel increasingly surreal.

Yesterday was the first day I was able to go down to the areas that were most affected. My first stop was the Roxboro/Rideau Park area. My girlfriend had organized for several dozen bagged lunches to be made by her CBE colleagues and our plan was to help feed the volunteers and those whose homes had been affected. We packed up the lunches and our children and headed down.

I felt quite prepared for the outing. After all, I had seen everything that was available to be seen on the floods. We checked into volunteer centre and shared why we were there. The coordinator got teary as she thanked us for helping her neighbours. I believe she was especially moved by the presence of children who were eager to help. I received my first hint that things were not going to be as I had expected when she asked us “if we were sure we wanted to enter with the kids.” Still not really understanding why we wouldn’t, we reaffirmed our desire to help however we could.

As we entered the community, I realized that there was nothing that could have prepared me for what I was about to see. Similarly, I am finding my words inadequate in properly describing what we found. The devastation was truly unimaginable. Mud lined the streets and was splattered across the homes. It consumed the vehicles that had obviously not escaped the floods. As we walked we had to navigate our way around huge piles of debris that were often taller than we were made up of appliances, electronics, and countless personal items. These piles along the street had merged together into a continuous baracade given the serious shortage of vehicles to haul the loads away. As a new mum, it especially tugged on my heart strings when I saw piles of children’s books, a dollhouse, a stuffed animal – things you knew were special to someone who just wasn’t old enough to possibly understand what had happened. Not that age grants any of us further comprehension.

Those who have helped within the homes again echo that nothing can describe what they saw: Feet of mud covering everything. Water that not only destroyed basements and the ground level but sometimes went so high that it destroyed the ceiling/floor of the upper level. The sheer force of the water entering my friend's home in Bowness tore through his house so violently that it threw belongings everywhere - it was literally a raging river trying to make a path through his home which made going through the home and trying to find things in the aftermath nearly impossible. The race against time to get things out before mold took over often prohibited people from even thinking about trying to save any of their belongings. Everything got shoveled out, ripped out, cut out, thrown out.

Of the hundreds of homes we past, it was evident that the owners were all at drastically different stages. There were those who were deeply in the process of gutting their homes and others who were obviously still in shock as they sat on their doorsteps slowly turning the pages of their photo albums trying to salvage something.

The energy was equally mixed: a high from the incredible demonstration of community support and pockets of very real sadness and pain. While some people gratefully took food, others declined. As I offered food to an elderly gentleman, his eyes welled with tears as he told me he hadn’t been able to eat for days. This atrocity will be hard for all that have been affected especially those with additional challenges: the elderly, people with disabilities, families with small children, and people who already struggle with poverty.

I can appreciate that for some it may feel like "it's over" ... It's not over now. It won’t be over next week, or next month or the month after that. Although progress is being made, we are truly at the very very beginning. To get to the other side of this we need everyone to help in some way. Everyone can do something. Help do laundry, pass out water, grab a crow bar, gather donations, buy a gift card, help care for others children so they can help out, hold a hand. We need to pitch in for the long haul and we need everyone to help so that the help can be sustained for the long run. We have only just started to help communities like High River where the suffering is unfathomable.

I love you Calgary. I love everyone helping both from our community and beyond. You make me so proud. We can do this.

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Call and they will come

With the back of my truck still full of donations we made our way to the Siksika Nation drop off. It took about 15 minutes to drop everything off and in that time at least 4 other vehicles came to donate tonnes of stuff too. Their call for help was being answered: again and again. It was great to see.

After I dropped off the donations they asked me to provide my contact information because they are planning to invite all the people who donated to a thanksgiving celebration. I was so impressed that they were already planning how to pay it forward. In their position I would have been in a mental fog barely thinking past what needed to be done this minute, this hour or this day.

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Bowness

We went around visiting people again with cards in hand this time in Bowness. To access the community you have to park and walk over the pedestrian bridge. Walking over the bridge you could see how fast-moving, high and wide the river still is. The water resists being moved aside by the bridge supports pushing back and up the pillar, looking like the waves created by the bow of a ship breaking through waves at sea. You can see how high the water still is in the picture below.

All traffic into the area is limited to those vehicles required for a function such as hailing out the remnants of people's homes. Unlike Sunnyside it did not feel very party-like. People were working hard, they were tired and spirits were subdued. There was no talk of blessings in disguise but there was still lots of gratitude for those people who have come to help them in their hour of need. Lots of waiting around for people to come and haul the rubble away - the need for trucks is really slowing the clean-up process down.

Here where spirits were lower I got the clear sense that taking pictures was not appreciated. In an effort to refrain from appearing like a gawker I didn't take much for photos out of respect for those that lost so much. In moments of despair I could see how take photos would just seem like fodder for someone's detached curiosity. In reality I just want to tell their story so other people know what it is like. Why these people need our help. In this world of sound bytes it might feel like this story is "over." For these people it has just begun.

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Down time

We have had a slow start to the day. The kids needed some time to be kids this morning. Will be off do-gooding this afternoon. :)

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Party time?

When we arrived in the community of Sunnyside it felt almost like the party where you can feel the positive vibe just vibrating through the air. The kind of party where you know everyone is going to be hugging at the end of the night not fighting. It didn't feel at all like the aftermath of a state of emergency but it definitely looked like it with piles and piles of garbage lining every block.

The "Crisis Cafe" was barbecuing burgers and hotdogs and genuinely grateful for the supplies we donated. The Crisis Cafe was the drop off point for community supplies - everyone was welcome to anything received.

While the Relief Centers had actually been throwing away food that wasn't packaged, these community hubs were grateful for everyone's contribution. There were sandwiches, burgers, fruit and beverages piled up. Someone was delivering pizza when first got there.

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Magic

After dropping off the donated supplies - and the supplies purchased with donated funds - we walked the streets feeding people sandwiches, fruit and veggies. While there was a crisis centre set up in their neighborhood many of the people in the hardest hit blocks worked tirelessly without stopping. We offered food and while some people cleaned out our supply and sent us back to the truck to get more, other people initially said no. Those that said no often paused and changed their minds - they were in fact starving but hadn't thought to stop and eat. They were numbed by the overwhelming job of gutting their house and throwing out many items that were most precious to them - mementos and collections from a lifetime lived.

Introducing Norah and allowing her to give her gifts - handmade cards that she labored at for an hour and more (quite a considerable amount of focused time for a 4 year old) - allowed us the opportunity to hear the stories of these people most affected. Stories of loss. Of caring neighbors. Of blessings of new friendships with people that were once strangers who showed and asked "how can I help." Mostly they were stories of amazing people doing amazing things for eachother.

It brought numerous people to tears to get a new homemade memento from Norah who was thoughtful enough to have really worked at these cards "to help the people whose houses got broke from the flood." One woman said that she was going to start her next collection of treasures with the card from Norah. Another couldn't say anything for the tears. People wanted their pictures taken with her. Another lady invited her back next week when their house was back to normal and she would give her a tour. Others loved Norah's curiosity about their story and what happened to them - one lady said she had to throw out her bed but that was okay because she gets to camp in her house now with an air mattress!

It is quite a magical experience tagging along with children. The hugs people received from Norah and Sella filled them up just as much as the sandwiches did.


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Sandwich Work Bee

Some lovely neighbors of my mom who have gotten together to make sandwiches en mass. My mom, the kids and I are planning on meeting up with Matt and Jodi (my bro and my sis-in-law) to help around their neighborhood in Sunnyside, an area hit by the flooding.

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Packed and Ready

The truck is filled with your generosity. Norah, Sella, Eli and I leave tomorrow morning with plans to go back this weekend as well.

Norah has created some cards for the people who have lost their homes and is eager to get south to help!

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Thank you

A warm and gracious thank you to everyone who has contributed to our little support team. I've created this website so you can see the good that you have created with your donations. Thanks for helping out.

Thanks to everyone and keep it coming - there is lots of work to be done.