Trying to get home for Christmas
A High River family struggles to rebuild their flood-ravaged house in time for the holidays
High River residents Angela Piovesana and Amanda Pawlitzki are blogging about their experiences during and after the floods that hit southern Alberta.
They'll tell stories of the recovery through the eyes of people who live there.
This is the story of two friends of mine, Catherine and Matt Smith. They have two beautiful daughters and their youngest Isla has lived more time out of their house than in it.
Catherine and Matt have received three denial letters from their insurance company, Intact, and funds are running low to rebuild their house.
Never imagined this day
Catherine was getting ready for a play date on June 20, 2013 at 11a.m. Catherine and Matt have two daughters, Briley who is three and their newest addition Isla, who was two months at the time. So getting ready for anything takes planning.
“The first text I got was from a friend on the west side of town, the area at risk of flooding, saying she should have bought on our end. I've lived in High River most of my life and seen the floods and every time there is more hype than damage, so I didn't think much of it,” said Catherine.
This time was different though. By noon the town was in full-on panic mode, and the Smith house was becoming a safe haven for friends and family whose homes and streets were no longer safe.
It had never even crossed Catherine’s mind that water would reach them, as they were nowhere near a flood plain, living in the Hampton's area.
Later on, around 7 p.m., there was a knock at their door and a warning to evacuate. Catherine thought they were being over cautious. However they packed their suitcase for a night away and moved everything in the basement up two feet. By now her husband Matt was home and put Briley to bed.
Everything started to drastically change at 10:30 p.m. Matt went downstairs to check the basement and from upstairs Catherine could hear a few choice expletives.
They had sewage pouring in through the sanitary sewer drain and already had over an inch covering their entire basement.
“Our beautiful basement, my husband and his father had worked the entire winter to finish before the baby came. We had a brand new toy room and a mini man-cave and had only enjoyed it for three months,” said Catherine.
Water was now coming up through man-holes on the streets, it was clear they had to get out and fast. They grabbed what they could, packed up the girls and their two dogs and locked their cats up on the top floor and left. After contemplating taking two vehicles, they decided to leave Matt’s work truck.
The next week was a blur. Everyone the Smiths knew was evacuated from town.
“We watched the news non-stop anxiously waiting to see photos of our home. When we finally got a glimpse we wished we hadn't. Our home sat in the middle of a large lake and from the photos you could see the water was over our backdoor,” Catherine said.
“Town people were furious, no real information was leaving town and nobody was getting in. This was the longest week of my life.”
Catherine said her sleepy little town was now surrounded by military and RCMP at each entrance. The news went from showing angry citizens threatening to riot to images and stories of the people who had perished.
I wasn't angry, I was numb. I still clung to the belief that the people in charge had our best interests at heart.
Friday July 12: Catherine and Matt had limited access — a half hour wearing full body suits, respirators and gloves — given passes to their own homes and had to pass the RCMP barrier.
They were told to grab all they could in that amount of time. It was hard for them to decide what was important. They grabbed their first daughter’s urn, their wedding album — and they didn’t know what else to grab.
They had no idea if this was the last time they would be in or just the first.
“Turns out it's nearly impossible to look at your remaining belongings and pick only a truck full. Seeing my home broke my heart. We'd had to work really hard to get that house and everything in it. We finally were able to have a bit of money at the end of the month left over and that was going towards debt, not savings. How would we ever recover? Is this house ever going to be safe?,” said Catherine.
Everything from their basement was on their lawn. Nothing was recognizable, the gutting of insides continued. Christmas decorations were one of the hardest for Catherine to see in a heap. There was baby’s first Christmas, photo ornaments from every year since she and Matt started dating.
Understandably Catherine was having trouble holding it together already — then she saw someone had found her Cari angel and put her in the kitchen sink.
“When our first daughter was stillborn the funeral home gave us an angel and I hung it on the Christmas tree every year. I couldn't keep in in anymore and cried for the first time that day”, said Catherine.
Catherine and Matt had amazing friends and family that helped as they gutted up to four feet on the main floor. The Smiths insurance adjuster came and denied their claim because water had touched their main floor even though they had a photo of sewage entering their home.
It was just another painful jab for them to endure.
“The government had promised money right away to help people and so far no sign of that. Then on July 18 Alberta Health Services slaps a notice on our door and we are no longer allowed access,” Catherine said.
“We were almost done and now we're out again! Many of our neighbours hadn't known where to start or refused to and their homes continued to sit rotting. So that's where we are now — waiting again. Probably for the best since we can't afford to rebuild anyway,” she said.
Catherine said there have been amazing people — giving them clothing her kids, feeding and sheltering them, offering encouragement. Without these acts of kindnesses they would have been lost, she said.
“I will forever be changed in the way I view possessions and all things material. I've lost trust in institutions and gained faith in my family’s strength,” she said.
The Smiths are still not in their house and lack the funds to rebuild — with no money from insurance and very little from DRP, whose formula to determine how much people receive too low for even basic standards.
It was no easy choice, but after talking it over with her husband Catherine created a page on a site called “Go Fund Me”.
“It is harder to ask for help right now because there are so many people in the exact same position and we don’t think we deserve to be helped more than anyone else. We hope everyone is lucky enough to have friends and family they can reach out to,” said Catherine.
The goal is to be in for Christmas, especially since this is their daughter Isla’s first Christmas. Already the Smiths are blown away by the generosity of friends and strangers.
“We got an anonymous donation of $5.00, I wish it wasn’t anonymous — want to tell that person that $5.00 is just as important and helpful as any amount. We have friends in the same situation donating as well. We are truly overwhelmed by all the support,” said Catherine.
If anyone would like to help out this amazing family achieve their goals you can donate here.