Move on, rebuild smarter, elsewhere: flood lessons learned in parts of Alberta

Residents and officials in High River, one of the hardest-hit communities during the June 2013 floods in Alberta, say anyone dealing with the current flooding devastation in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia should rethink how and where they live.

Make decisions 'in the best interests of the community, and the province and the country': High River mayor

The town of High River, Alta., has spent $400 million on reconstruction efforts since it was hit by flooding in southern Alberta in 2013. Residents recalled the devastating impact that flood had on themselves and their communities as Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia continue to deal with recent flooding. (Dave Rae/CBC)

The images this week of flooded streets and houses in parts of Quebec and Ontario, and British Columbia's experiences with rising waters are all too familiar to Albertans, who in 2013 suffered through one of the worst floods in the province's history.

Thousands of people in dozens of municipalities in Quebec are displaced by recent flooding as military and navy personnel remained in communities to prepare for possibly more rainfall this weekend. Many residents in Ottawa, among the Ontario areas hit by recent flooding, are just starting to return to their homes and assessing the damage, while hundreds in B.C. remain out of their homes after evacuation orders were issued last week. 

Nearly four years earlier, the southern Alberta floodwaters that inundated Calgary, High River, Canmore and more than two dozen other communities following days of heavy rainfall left an unprecedented swath of destruction — resulting in five deaths and tens of thousands being forced from their homes, and causing damage in excess of $5 billion.

Alberta resident Jane Russell recalled that surveying the damage was like "walking through a war zone."

"There was debris and things that were never there before, and the silt was three feet [a metre] or more deep."

Russell was forced out of her home of 25 years in High River, one of the worst-hit communities in 2013.

"From the outside you say, 'Oh it's just water on the street,' but you know their basement is full of water," said Russell.

"It's not even seeing it as much as knowing what they're going to be going through next. The gross smell, the cleanup, the grief of the loss."

Russell and her husband used to live in High River's Wallaceville area. The provincial government bought out all 91 homes in that neighbourhood, and 31 in another, as they were considered too vulnerable to flooding.

Some residents resisted the move, but Russell welcomed it. In 2013, she knew there was no going back to her older home when she was allowed near it again once the worst of the water receded.

This is what High River resident Jane Russell's yard looked like when she was allowed to return to her home in the summer of 2013 once the worst of the waters had receded. ((Submitted by Jane Russell) )

Firefighters escorted Russell and her husband around her property, and asked them to select only items they would need and pack them into a suitcase.

"I was so in shock," she said. "What do I even want? Like I'd been living with a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, all I really wanted was a pair of shoes."

She has grown philosophical about it in the time since.

"It's just stuff now," she said. Her husband, family and friends are all still there.

Making tough decisions

Craig Snodgrass, who was elected mayor of High River shortly after the June flood, recalled having to tell residents they would have to clear their homes.

"Hardest meetings I ever had in my life and I never want to do it again," he said.

High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass says one of the biggest lessons learned from the 2013 Alberta flooding was not to ignore the increasing frequency of natural disasters. (Dave Rae/CBC )

"But when it's for the good and the future of your town, and the good of the community too, as hard as it is, you have to go there."

High River has also taken some less drastic measures to protect itself.

The town invested $400 million to replace old clay sewer lines, and to build berms: more than 10 kilometres of earth, forming a barrier between the river and the land.

For Snodgrass, one of the biggest lessons learned was not to ignore the increasing frequency of natural disasters.

Southern Alberta, including High River, had experienced floods just eight years earlier, so betting on inundations only occurring once every 100 years is no longer a safe assumption.

"When you're [a politician], it's not easy, and you have to make decisions that are ... in the best interests of the community, and the province and the country," he said.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also urged officials at all levels of government to develop a plan to "rebuild better" as Canada braces for more frequent floods and fires related to climate change.

After touring the Gatineau flood zones by helicopter with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Trudeau said that going forward, officials must also develop a rebuilding strategy that makes communities more resistant and resilient to extreme weather events.

With files from Carolyn Dunn