The Current

B.C. flood recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint, says High River disaster survivor

The floods in British Columbia are hard to watch for some residents in High River, Alta. — they experienced a similar tragedy in 2013. But their experience could offer a blueprint for recovery in B.C.

High River, Alta., residents offer experience, lessons learned from their 2013 flooding

People load sand bags to try and stop the rising flood waters in Barrowtown near Abbotsford, B.C. High River, Alta., could offer a blueprint for B.C. on how to recover from the flooding. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

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The scenes of B.C.'s devastating floods have at times been too much to handle for Connie Balerud of High River, Alta., itself the site of destructive flooding in 2013.

"It brings back a lot of anxiety. It makes your stomach tense and brings you right back into those feelings of when we were here," Balerud told The Current

"At certain pictures, you just have to shut it off and try not to think about it all day."

It's been more than a week since B.C.'s interior was hit with devastating floods and mudslides. Highways washed out by floods are still closed, the province remains in a state of emergency, and people are just starting to return to their broken homes and livelihoods.

As communities affected in B.C. contemplate what lies ahead, the experiences of Balerud and her neighbours could serve as a blueprint for recovery. The Current's guest host Robyn Bresnahan spoke to High River residents about the trauma of a natural disaster, and what it takes to overcome it.

Members of the RCMP return from a boat patrol of a flooded neighborhood in High River, Alta., on July 4, 2013. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Find community support

Balerud said she and her family were locked out of their house for 14 days during the 2013 flooding, unaware of how bad the damage was.

"We had no idea what was going on with our home; if there was water in it or not ... because we had no connections to media at that time," she said.

When they did return home, Balerud said the neighbourhood was unrecognizable. Silt and debris from local feed mills were spread all over people's lawns, and residents' front doors had been kicked in.

Inside her own house, Balerud found her couch in the bathroom and her belongings scattered all over. 

"Our basement looked like a blender had gone through it," she said. 

Everybody came prepared, taking notes and just trying to help each other out.-Connie Balerud

Though the early days of recovery were chaotic, Balerud found solace in her husband and her neighbours. 

"We would meet once a week at a location just to have a coffee … and find out information that they might know, that we didn't know," she said. "Everybody came prepared, taking notes and just trying to help each other out."

Balerud believes preparation is key. She advised stocking up on tools like rubber boots, gloves, masks and a first aid kit.

She also suggested not waiting to get in touch with insurance companies and the government about assistance and coverage.

"If you can start those things now before you get back in, you're going to probably find that that's helpful," she said.

Rev. Susan Lukey was forced to spend a night alone in High River United Church after flooding trapped her inside the building. (Submitted by Susan Lukey)

Recovery is 'a marathon'

Rev. Susan Lukey of High River United Church was forced to spend the night alone in her church in 2013 — but with water levels rising, she had climb a ladder up to a ledge about 10 feet off of the floor.

"Suddenly, it was like a wall of water had come down and the church was surrounded by about three feet of water. There was no way to get out," she said.

"I probably dozed, but it is pretty hard when you're hearing water come in and tipping furniture, and the creaking," she said. 

Though Lukey was able to get out of the church by the next morning, she said the actual recovery from the flood took much longer. 

This is going to be a long-term recovery.-Rev. Susan Lukey

She advised those affected in B.C. to think of recovery as a marathon, not a sprint.

"There [are] things you have to do quickly and get done and you want to get going back into your house. But this is going to be a long-term recovery," she said.

High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass took office shortly after a flood devastated the Alberta town. (Submitted by Michelle Geminiano)

Opportunity out of tragedy

How does a new mayor rebuild a town that only months ago experienced such drastic flooding? That's the question Craig Snodgrass had to grapple with when he was elected mayor of High River in the fall of 2013. 

"Any decision you make is not going to make everybody happy," he said. "You try to get the most taken care of as well as you can."

But he added that "everybody had their own little piece of this puzzle to put back together, and we were very successful doing that." 

Part of that success came from looking at the flooding not just as a tragedy, but also as an opportunity to build a safer, more prepared High River.

We're very fortunate to live in a country as great as Canada is and live in these provinces that are very privileged.-Craig Snodgrass

Snodgrass said the city built more than eight kilometres of diking to prevent future floods. They also focused on making the downtown core more pedestrian-friendly by building wider sidewalks, and reducing parking spots.

"As hard as it is, when we look back at what happened to High River, as far as the municipality goes we came out of the flood in a very, very positive way," he said.

Recovery will be a slow process, but Snodgrass believes his fellow Canadians in B.C. could put themselves in a better position for the future by not trying to do too much too soon — especially given all of the resources and support available.

"We're very fortunate to live in a country as great as Canada is, and live in these provinces that are very privileged," he said. "And we have the resources and the money behind us to be able to put this back together."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Matt Meuse and Arianne Robinson.

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