BLOG | High River family's tale of flood survival

Everyone in High River, Alta. has a different version of June 20.

Blogger Amanda Pawlitzki with the story of the Murray family

Cassandra Murray's 21-month-old boy, Sawyer, came home three days before the flood after 20 months in the Alberta Children's Hospital. (Amanda Pawlitzki/CBC)

High River residents Angela Piovesana and Amanda Pawlitzki will be blogging over the summer about their experiences during and after the floods hit southern Alberta.

They'll tell stories of the recovery through the eyes of people who live there.

Everyone in High River, Alta., has a different version of June 20.

For many it started off routinely, getting kids to school and going to work. As the day progressed, it veered off the normal path into a panic-stricken journey that will define many families’ lives for years to come.

My friend Cassandra Murray and her husband Charlie have five children. Their story starts three days earlier.

Their youngest, Sawyer, is almost 21-months-old. He was born with a rare neuromuscular disease called central core disease and spent his first 20 months at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

On June 17, almost two years, after his birth, they welcomed their son home from the hospital. He was now strong enough to be on a home ventilator.

"Having him home and having our family finally together under one roof was the only thing on our minds," she says.

The day they never saw coming

On June 20, Murray dropped her three of the kids at school and her three-year-old at his day home, just around the corner from the house.

"I was planning on enjoying a nice quiet day at home with Sawyer," she says.

It was on Facebook that Murray found out her kids’ school was being evacuated due to the risk of flooding.

Murray, unable to get the kids because she couldn’t take Sawyer in the car alone, called her husband to grab the kids from school.

Now with almost everyone safe at home, the worry was what to do with Sawyer’s ventilation system if they lost power.

"My husband Charlie and our oldest Colton, drove into Calgary to buy a generator.  So here I was at home with four of our children completely oblivious to what was happening outside — and around High River — and never in a million years did I ever anticipate [our community of] Montrose flooding."

But with the water quickly rising, Murray realized they couldn’t stay at the house. Her mother, who lives downstairs, rushed to get the three-year-old from his day home around the corner. Her grandfather was also at the house.

In the eight minutes she was gone, the water had risen to the back fence. Panicked, Murray called her husband to tell him to drop everything in Calgary and get back ASAP.

Twenty minutes later, the doors to Murray’s basement blew open and five feet of water came rushing in.

"Nothing could be done. My mom had just lost everything and we had no idea if her cat made it up high enough. Charlie was also not able to get back to us before the bridge washed out and our neighborhood was completely inaccessible by vehicle," she says.

The rescue

Realizing they would need help, Murray called 911 to arrange for help to get out.

"After two and a half hours on the phone I finally heard word they were sending a boat. During that two and a half hours, my neighbors Tom and Suzanne were an amazing help with keeping the kids, my mom and grandfather calm.  They also helped me bring all the valuables off the main floor to the upstairs," she says.

"We didn't know when the water was going to stop."

When the boat arrived, Murray could take Sawyer, but had to leave the others because there wasn't enough room. Emergency officials had sent several people, not knowing Sawyer’s condition.

Despite the tense circumstances, everyone on the boat — including the driver, who happened to be my father-in-law — joked together as they made it to dry ground.

At one point, they had to wait as a construction trailer with a hissing propane tank floated past.

There was a quick reunion with Charlie and Colton after they got off the boat, before Murray and Colton accompanied Sawyer in an ambulance to the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary. 

It would be hours before the rest of the kids and Murray’s mother were able to leave the house — by combine. Her grandfather was brought out by boat a bit earlier.

"The best part of whole entire day was when our family was reunited at midnight.  We all slept within a foot of each other that night. Unfortunately Sawyer was re-admitted to ACH and had to stay there until our home was safe again — but how long would that be?" said Murray.


On July 3, Murray and her husband saw their home again. Rather than crying, the pair went into "let’s get it done mode," she says.

"All we cared about was cleaning it up, making it safe and getting home again."

One month exactly from the flood, Murray and her family — minus Sawyer — moved home.

By July 30, Sawyer was reunited with the family.

"We'll never be back to where we were on the house as our insurance policy hasn't covered about half the damages, but that's life. What matters is that we're home — all of us," said Murray.

Sawyer Murray has central core disease and must use a ventilation system. (Amanda Pawlitzki/CBC)