More residents forced out of their homes in flood-ravaged High River, Alta., returned home today to take stock of their damaged homes.

People in Sunshine Meadows, one of the hardest hit areas of the southern Alberta town, were allowed to go into their homes to retrieve belongings, such as photographs and passports — but were warned by officials not to stay.

Many homes have been underwater for more than a week and there is likely to be major structural damage and they could be unsafe, warned officials.

"It is still too dangerous," said Shane Schreiber, of Alberta Emergency Management.

"The construction materials have probably significantly deformed and there is a very real danger of people going in their homes and falling through the floors and being trapped in a watery basement."

But it was relief for some residents. Darlene Beutler came home to find out her house had been labelled code orange — meaning it is waterlogged, unsafe to live in but salvageable.

Damaged homes categorized

She thought her home would be in the red category.

"So we're grateful that it's not quite as bad as we thought it was going to be," she said.

High River officials have been using a colour-code system to help guide people returning to damaged properties. 

Properties are classified as green if no remediation or repairs are required. A yellow tag means no structural damage is evident but repairs are needed.

Orange means the water has reached such a level where electrical or heating appliances have been compromised but can be fixed.

Red means flooding has either damaged the structural integrity of the building or the water level has reached a point above the basement level where the flooring system may have been compromised.

Waivers signed

Residents had to sign a waiver acknowledging that they are aware of the danger involved in entering their homes, said Schreiber.

"For many of you going back to the Sunshine, I will just caution that it will be a bit of a shock. We are cleaning it up as fast as we can, but it’s not in a good state," said Schreiber earlier on Thursday.

"Be prepared to see your house in a pretty shocking state, frankly. We're cleaning it up and making it safe as fast as we can."

Residents were also being warned that they need a structural engineer to assess the home before they enter.

Some areas still closed

The Hamptons, Hampton Hills and Wallaceville area will remain a restricted access zone, said Rick Fraser, associate minister of regional recovery and reconstruction.

It still could be weeks before residents are allowed to return these neighbourhoods.

"I am hoping to get some answers," said Jane Russell. "I don't think I am going to get anything answered but at this point I just want to grab my stuff and never come back to be quite honest."

There were bus tours around areas of the neighbourhoods that are accessible, but people will not be allowed to get off the bus or access their homes.

CBC reporter Briar Stewart said many parts of town still smell of rotting material.

In the east part of the town, more than 100,000 gallons of floodwater is being pumped out every minute — which means one Olympic sized pool every six minutes, said Fraser.

Cleanup help

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Volunteers are beginning to descend on flood-ravaged High River, Alta. (CBC)

The province has established a shuttle service to take volunteers in Calgary to High River to help with the cleanup, which will continue on Friday.

Shuttles leave from Mount Royal University and Bishop O'Byrne High School in Shawnessy every two hours, starting at 9 a.m. MT. The last shuttle from Calgary to High River leaves at 4 p.m. MT, and the last shuttle from High River leaves at 9 p.m. MT.

Volunteers were asked to bring their own supplies including rubber gloves, boots, shovels and garbage bags.

More than 500 vehicles remain unclaimed at High River's rodeo grounds, the province said Thursday.

New phase for interim housing announced

Residents looking for interim housing are being asked to call 403-310-4455 between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. MT to complete a housing assessment so that safe accommodation can be arranged.

With evacuation centres closing at 3 p.m. Friday, the province says those without a place to go will be placed in other accommodations.

The first placements will accommodate evacuees from High River whose homes are classified as red — or not safe to live in, families and individuals and vulnerable people who are in reception centres and sleeping on cots.

Depending on their assessment, people will be placed for no charge at:

  • Hotel accommodation.
  • University of Lethbridge.
  • University of Calgary.
  • New temporary neighbourhood at Saddlebrook north of High River (opening July 7).
  • New temporary neighbourhood at Great Plains south of Calgary (opening July 13).

The province says Saddlebrook will be able to accommodate 1,250 people within a few weeks, and Great Plains will expand to 1,000 beds. Other locations to house evacuees are also in the works. 

The province says accommodations will try to address the needs of residents, including families, seniors and people with special needs.

Officials say locations for displaced residents in other parts of southern Alberta are being determined and will be announced as soon as possible.