What On Earth

What an Alberta town can teach us about coping with climate disasters

The 2013 Alberta floods left lasting emotional and psychological impacts, which experts say we need to better understand as this kind of disaster becomes more frequent due to human-caused climate change.

High River was hard-hit by flooding in 2013; it's now a case study for recovery and mental health

Berms now line much of the Highwood River, which runs through High River, Alta. It overflowed its banks after historic flooding in 2013. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

When High River, Alta., began to reopen in the weeks and months following the devastating flood of 2013, Marianne Dickson noticed the casual conversations around town had changed.

Customers in line at the grocery store would vent to cashiers about insurance claims, or when they could return to their homes — some of which were left uninhabitable.

"We were finding the grocery store, the bank tellers, the hairdressers were all becoming very overwhelmed because that's where people were unloading," said Dickson, the executive director of Wild Rose Community Connections, which provides social services in High River.

On June 20, 2013, flooding inundated southern Alberta after extreme rainfall, overwhelming roughly 60 per cent of High River and damaging more than 70 per cent of its homes. Five people died as a result; two were from High River. 

Prior floods hadn't wreaked such havoc, partly, according to the Alberta Flood Recovery Taskforce, because of how and where the town had developed. A 2017 study cited in a federal government report suggested climate change, as a result of human-made greenhouse gas emissions, increased the likelihood of the heavy rainfall that led up to the flooding.

Marianne Dickson, executive director of Wild Rose Community Connections, is shown outside her home in High River. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

More than 13,000 people — the vast majority of the town's residents — were forced out, leaving lasting emotional and psychological impacts, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, which experts say we need to better understand, with this kind of disaster only becoming more frequent due to climate change. 

Katie Hayes observed those anxieties firsthand when she conducted field research for her PhD on the mental health impacts of climate change in 2018.

I did not want anybody to tell me that I would be recovering from this disaster five to seven years later. But it was true.- Rev. David Robertson

"Many folks talked about always having an eye to the sky, wondering when the next torrential rains were going to occur," said Hayes, a senior policy analyst at Health Canada's Climate Change and Innovation Bureau. "People reported feeling anxious every time they drove over the bridge to enter into the community." 

Flood water inundated 60 per cent of High River in 2013. (Reuters)

High River as a case study

Eight years after the flood, the federal government is turning to the experiences of High River to guide other communities on how to support mental well-being after a climate-related disaster. Those lessons will be captured in the Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate report, to be released in late 2021, that will address mental health for the first time, Hayes said.

Her research will inform part of a chapter examining policies and programs for all levels of governments, which might include simplifying access to funding for services or practical guides and training.

The need for such resources became apparent most recently after a wildfire tore through the village of Lytton, B.C.

"What we are seeing in Lytton, B.C., can have long-term psychological effects on the entire community," Hayes wrote in an email. "In a changing climate, many of these effects may be re-triggered by, or exacerbated by, future wildfires and periods of extreme heat."

Community-driven support

Hearing about the wildfire resurfaced memories of the 2013 flood for Rev. David Robertson, a minister at the High River United Church. While the nature of the disasters are different, "emotionally, I think the responses are going to be very similar," he said.

"I did not want anybody to tell me that I would be recovering from this disaster five to seven years later," he said. "But it was true."

Rev. David Robertson and his wife, Rev. Susan Lukey, are shown outside the High River United Church, which was hit by the flood. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

As High River residents navigated the physical cleanup of the community, as well as an emotional recovery, Robertson saw the need to facilitate what he calls "cascading care," which he said "requires a sense of awareness and effort on the part of everyone."

For Robertson, that included bringing local leaders together, as well as organizing events, including workshops for front-line workers on the psychological and emotional response to disasters, held in 2014 and 2015.

The province initially funded $50 million for mental health care, including instating a chief mental health officer until 2015. Meanwhile, the town of High River had raised $250,000 from the United and Lutheran churches of Canada, organizations and private donors to provide free support. 

In early 2014, the High River Counselling Centre launched in partnership with the Calgary Counselling Centre, funded by the province. But by June 2016, the money had dried up. 

Carlson's, a historic venue in High River, was one of the many places where people found high ground and safety while awaiting rescue. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

"Yet the needs were still there and the community recognized this," said Hayes.

In 2017, the Foothills Counselling Centre was created to offer support on a sliding scale, subsidized by the town and grants.

In a statement, Alberta Health Services said "developing strong working relationships with local community partners continues to be a focus."

In the years following the flood, local groups worked on other initiatives to support mental health. 

Wild Rose Community Connections, along with other local service providers, employed a tool called "How's Your 5." Trademarked by Missouri-based health-care system Mercy, it was used in Joplin, Mo., after that community was devastated by an EF5 tornado in 2011.

The approach prompts people to ask each other about five aspects of their lives — work, eat, sleep, play, love — in an effort to dig deeper into how they are feeling, Dickson said.

With more than 70 per cent of homes damaged — some rendered uninhabitable — High River residents had to contend with rebuilding their lives, in addition to the psychological impacts of the disaster. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Then there was Safe Spot, in which an orange dot on a door in town signified "an emotional safe spot," where people trained to talk to individuals in distress can refer them to resources. 

Safe Spot was "a big lesson learned" from High River that could be brought into other communities, Hayes said.

Access to support not equal

But she noted there's no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. 

In her research, Hayes found that in the aftermath of the flood, help that came in from outside the community didn't always align with what residents wanted. 

Many people reported feeling that they were "not in the driver's seat of their own recovery," and excluded from the emergency response, she said.

"They really needed to be, because they were going to be there well after [the] emergency response had left."

Homes were removed from the High River neighbourhood of Beachwood after the flood damage. Now the area is being remediated and returned to a rewilded state. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

Access to information and help wasn't equal for everyone either, Hayes said. 

"The groups that fared best were the groups that knew where and how to access supports," she said, and were predominantly English-speaking.

Liz Vigueras, who had moved to High River from Mexico five years before the flood, said it had "double" the impact on families like hers.

First, there was the loss of "so many things when you ... come to a new country." Then there was the trauma of displacement from the flood, with children especially "experiencing high levels of stress."

Communications weren't always translated into other languages immediately after the disaster, Hayes said — something Vigueras said could be done to support the well-being of people whose primary language isn't English. 

Liz Vigueras, shown in the Highwood Cemetery, started bringing Mexican dance to High River as part of recovery. Now she also hosts Day of the Dead and Cinco de Mayo events in town. (Leah Hennel/CBC)

"Medical terms have to be very exact when you want to express how you feel," said Vigueras, adding that language and cultural familiarity could help bridge that gap in access. 

At Saddlebrook, a trailer community equipped to house up to 1,200 people displaced by the disaster, where Vigueras and her family lived for months before returning home, she saw an opportunity to help comfort others originally from Mexico. She started a Mexican folkloric dance group that continues to practise and perform in High River. 

Dance was part of recovery, she said, "because [it] gave us time to get active, keep our minds busy."

"Creating resiliency is one of the goals."


Written and produced by Molly Segal

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