BLOG | The day that changed High River

High River residents Amanda Pawlitzki and Angela Piovesana will be blogging over the summer about their experiences during and after the flood. They'll be writing about the recovery through the stories of the people who live there.

Longtime High River resident tells her harrowing story of the floods June 20

Amanda Pawlitzki's frontyard on June 20 before she left her home to get to higher ground. (Amanda Pawlitzki/for the CBC)

High River residents Amanda Pawlitzki and Angela Piovesana will be blogging over the summer 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. In this post, Pawlitzki shares her experiences of the first day.

Thursday, June 20, started like any other day.

As my daughter Grae got ready for school — Grade 1 almost over for the year — my son Gage, was being his typical four-year-old self, covered in breakfast. Ryan, my husband, was getting ready to head up to Calgary, Gage in tow.

I dropped Grae off at school, hearing that the river was high and that some flooding was already underway. I grabbed my camera and headed towards the river.

By the time I arrived, around 8:45 a.m. MT, there were trees and even a boat wedged up against the bridge.

People began to gather as the water rose. High River was on alert, but we had no idea the wrath the river was about to inflict on the entire town.

An hour later, I made my way home, en route to a hair appointment. Walking and snapping pictures, it began to dawn on me that this time was different. The river had spilled into downtown and seemed to be following me home, further and further from the core.

Sending Ryan some pictures, I called to check that he and Gage would be home soon.

At home, the side street was flooded and water was seeping into my neighbours’ yard.

Cancelling my hair appointment, I stayed home to help sandbag. That’s when I got the call that Spitzee Elementary School was being evacuated. The kids would be moved to the high school.

Shocked, I dropped my phone and ran out the door. The water was rising rapidly, filling the main streets.

The elementary school being just down the street, I started running. In a panic, I looked for Grae.

Pawlitzki snapped this photo just after making it to dry ground. She had been pulled down by the current minutes before walking along those same tracks. (Amanda Pawlitzki/for the CBC)

I’d only learn later that Grae was already on a bus, crying and banging on a window as she looked at me in distress.

A friend yelled at me to get in her car, but as we headed to the high school the water was rising too high. I arranged for another friend, in nearby Cayley, Alta., to pick up Grae.

By the time I arrived home, Ryan and Gage had returned. My father-in-law then picked up Gage to take him to his house, which is on higher ground.

Ryan and I started taking boxes out of the basement, still not really believing our house would flood, it being on pretty high ground itself.

But with only four boxes moved, water had covered our front yard, and three wooden retaining walls had floated away.

Frantically, I packed a suitcase, slung my camera around my neck and jumped into our car. That’s when we knew things would never be the same.

The car died, overcome by the water that was quickly rushing in.

Yelling to each other, Ryan and I pushed open our doors to get out. A wave of freezing water floated in, instantly numbing me. I felt as if I was watching myself in a movie.

We pushed against the current, our legs feeling as weights were tied to them, as we tried to get to a nearby road.

A truck picked us up, but quickly died, and we were left standing by the library, the building almost submerged.

I knew we had to keep going, had to get to the kids. I gave Ryan my bag and began walking across the street, the water still rising.

By the time I got to the railroad tracks the water was up to my chest.

Ryan by my side, we watched as the metal stakes washed away. I remember thinking "is this happening?" — telling myself wake up, as if I was dreaming.

As I took my next step the water knocked me over and I smashed my hip on a track. Ryan scooped me up, telling me we had to keep going.

By the time we made it to a dry spot, we met up with my father-in-law again, jumping into the back of his truck.

On our way to his house we picked up three people, thinking we were homefree. But, as climbed a hill the truck died.

Ryan managed to push the truck, and a crowd cheering us on, we made it up the hill.

At that point, we’d thought the worst was over. We were wrong. The events of June 20 would change High River forever.

Pawlitzki took this photo from the back of her father-in-law's truck as they attempted to make it up the hill to safety. (Amanda Pawlitzki/for the CBC)