Minister disputes claim part of High River sacrificed to flood

The contractor who told residents in High River that the Hampton Hills community was sacrificed to help drain flooding from the rest of the town used an unfortunate choice of words, says Alberta's associate minister in charge of rebuilding efforts.

Rick Fraser says government employee used unfortunate words in secretly taped meeting

Residents of Hampton Hills in High River are planning to fight for their homes, including possible legal action. 4:41

The contractor who told residents in High River that the Hampton Hills community was sacrificed to help drain flooding from the rest of the town used an unfortunate choice of words, says Alberta's associate minister in charge of rebuilding efforts in the region.

Rick Fraser was reacting to secretly recorded video obtained by CBC News Tuesday.

The southern Alberta town was hit hard by flooding June 20, and a provincial state of emergency was in place for weeks.

The video shows Darwin Durnie — who was hired to manage the flood emergency in High River — explaining to residents of Hampton Hills that their homes were surrounded by berms that held water in the community for weeks as part of a larger plan to channel water out of the town.

The proximity of Hampton Hills to the Little Bow River diversion canal put the neighbourhood in harm’s way despite it not being in a floodway or flood fringe area.

Fraser criticized the version of events Durnie outlined to homeowners at the private, secretly videotaped meeting last Friday.

"Those words do not reflect the government’s views," Fraser said in a written release late Tuesday.

Contractor regrets word choice

Durnie said his aim at the meeting was to arm people with information that would allow them to work with government and insurance advisers to rebuild their lives.

Residents of some parts of flood-ravaged High River say they want the government to buy their properties. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"I regret creating this distraction and I sincerely hope that, tomorrow, we can continue to focus on our reconstruction efforts," said Durnie in a statement released Tuesday night.

Fraser said he was pleased to hear that two-thirds of Hampton Hills residents are back home and making repairs.

"The people of Hampton Hills need to know that we’re here for them and will continue to stand with them as they seek to restore their lives," he said.

Although many Hampton Hills residents have been allowed to go see their homes, many have a long road of rebuilding ahead, and some people in the community fear their homes will never be safe to live in again.

"We honestly believe this cannot be remediated," said Miguel Rodriguez, adding his home is infested with mould and maggots.

"I'm afraid to bring kids back, put them to sleep every night," he said.

Residents relieved to hear admission

Rodriquez said he felt some relief when the head of High River's emergency operations centre admitted that officials pumped water from other communities into the Hamptons.

Miguel Rodriguez says his Hampton Hills home is infested with mould and maggots, and he doubts it can be remediated. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Albert Flootman, High River’s director of engineering, said in a press conference Tuesday that floodwater from the nearby community of Sunrise was pumped into Hampton Hills because it had nowhere else to go.

He said building two nearby berms and pumping water into Hampton Hills was simply the obvious choice.

Rodriguez said it's too late to take Durnie's words back, and he wants fair market value for his home.

"We are prepared to fight for our homes, to fight for a safe place to live in," he said. 

His wife, Pamela Rodriguez, said she is not angry that officials sacrificed their homes in order to save others by draining floodwater into their community, but that she hopes the provincial government will do the right thing and buy them out.

Legal action possible

The couple and others on their street plan to take legal action if the province continues to refuse to buy their homes.

A sign posted on a home in Hampton Hills reads, 'Please don't make me sleep in the basement Daddy. I'm too young to die.' Many residents are concerned about the lingering health effects of the flood damage. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith said she doesn't blame Hampton Hills residents for wanting to be bought out, as their community is not near a floodway or flood fringe.

While raging floodwaters did reach the neighbourhood last month, she said it appears damage was increased by some of the actions that government took.

She is encouraging the province to offer them the ability to relocate, as it is doing for people living in floodways.

The floodway program allows people to get their home's equivalent value so they can move, and Smith said that’s what these residents are asking for — they want out. She said they want to restart their lives, and the government should look at them as a special case.

Smith is also calling for an inquiry.

"They need to be very clear about why it is they made the decision that they did and to be able to justify it to this community one way or the other," she said. "Either explain and justify it or admit that it was an error and own up to it and do the right thing."

Inquiry a distraction, says minister

Doug Griffiths, Alberta's minister of municipal affairs, said it will be difficult to pinpoint who made the call, as decisions were being made quickly during the crisis.

"But really trying to do that is trying to pin blame on someone when everybody … was trying to make the best decision possible given the data they had," he said.

Griffiths said he sympathizes with residents whose homes were destroyed by lingering floodwaters.

But he feels the use of emotionally charged words and calling for an inquiry are just a distraction to the cleanup that needs to be done.

"Our job and our task at hand is to remediate the properties, to clean them up, because they are a hazard right now," he said, adding he would like to be able to see children play in the area in the future.

He said the homes are not in a floodway or flood fringe, and it was only because of unprecedented flooding that their homes were damaged.

Griffiths would like to see the houses repaired or rebuilt and flood mitigation work completed in the area, and then homeowners can decide whether they would like to sell their homes.