High River residents inspect 7 neighbourhoods deemed safe

Roughly 5,000 High River residents are expected to be allowed back to see their homes on Saturday, says the newly appointed provincial official in charge of recovery efforts in the flooded Alberta town.

Infrastructure damage to town is greatest in province's history, minister says

Residents returning to High River faced long lineups on Saturday. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Roughly 5,000 High River, Alta., residents are expected to be allowed back to see their homes Saturday, amid long lineups and frustration over the time it took to get back.

While they will not be allowed to stay in town, evacuees will be able to inspect their flood-damaged home for the first time in 10 days. The lineup of vehicles stretched about one kilometre down the highway and some residents are expressing frustration over the government's handling of their flood recovery.

"It's taken way too long for the government to act," said Jeff Langford, a High River farmer whose land is now covered by a lake. "They're nowhere near the size of pumps we need to move this water."

Residents from seven neighbourhoods were the first group of people allowed back to see their homes Saturday, after provincial officials declared it is safe to do so.

The return is part of the town's three-phase community re-entry plan.

Homes have been colour-coded as follows:

  • Green: habitable.
  • Yellow: minor impact, requires clean up, possible repairs, remains habitable.
  • Orange: damaged, requires extensive repairs or renovations not immediately habitable, residents enter at their own risk.
  • Red: severely damaged, uninhabitable, dangerous, residents enter at their own risk.

Of the 1817 structures, mainly homes, in High River, 639 are classified as 'green.'

There are 318 classified as 'yellow,' 719 as 'orange' and 141 as 'red.'

Of the the more than 500 businesses needing inspections, roughly 130 are complete. Business owners will be able to see their businesses when the area has been opened for re-entry.

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths says the infrastructure damage in High River is greater than anything suffered in Alberta.

Officials are asking for patience as the re-entry process gets underway.

Residents return 'a priority'

Rick Fraser, the Calgary-South East MLA, was recently named the associate minister in the municipal affairs department.

"Our priority is to enable the return of residents to their homes in a safe and orderly fashion as quickly as possible," said Fraser.

The Alberta government took over responsibility for all emergency operations in High River at the request of the town’s mayor this week.

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths made the announcement, declaring a provincial state of emergency in High River and putting Fraser in charge.

About 13,000 residents were removed from High River last Thursday as the Highwood River swamped much of the town.

"The disaster in High River has been overwhelming. That’s why we are taking this unique and unprecedented step," said Griffiths.

"Mayor [Emile] Blokland and his administration have done outstanding work dealing with this situation, but it has become clear to both the mayor and me that the tasks ahead require significant resources and expertise. The province is ready to step in and provide that and build on that as necessary," he said.

Impatience growing

Blokland and town officials have faced criticism from residents who are growing impatient as they wait to be allowed to return to their flooded homes.

"Given the scope and scale of this disaster, I have decided the best course of action for getting the people of High River back into their homes as soon as possible is for the province to take charge of the co-ordination and implementation of emergency operations," said Blokland.

Fraser will be supported by an official from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and town employees, the province said.

Danielle Smith, leader of the opposition Wildrose Party and the MLA for the town, said it was time for the province to take over.

"I’m hoping that the information flow improves because part of what you need to deal with when people are in this situation is, they need to know … when they get back to their home, is it going to be fine with no water damage, or is it going to have to be bulldozed."

Provincial inspectors have been going house to house to determine which buildings are habitable and which will have to be condemned.

Residents are anxious to get back in and start the rebuilding process, said Blokland.

"This is their community," he said. "This is where their neighbours are, their friends are, and we'll put this town back together again."

One of the outstanding safety issues is the huge body of water that formed in town during the flood, said Fraser.

"The last thing we want is to put people in homes and say we have to evacuate because this lake decided to drain," he said.

Short-term housing is being offered at the University of Lethbridge.

Major employer getting back on track

Cargill Meat Solutions, which employs 2,000 people in High River, could be back in production next week. Cargill's facilities weren't flooded, but the company needs access to potable water in order to resume operations.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who visited the meat plant on Sunday, said it’s a critical part of Alberta's beef Industry.

The town is still trying to get its sewage system back on line. The province has provided a pump and irrigation piping.

The province has also pledged $50 million to help with the cleanup in High River.