CANADA

Rocky Mountain high

Thousands flee their homes as floods sweep across southern Alberta

MARY NEMETH June 19 1995
CANADA

Rocky Mountain high

Thousands flee their homes as floods sweep across southern Alberta

MARY NEMETH June 19 1995

Rocky Mountain high

Thousands flee their homes as floods sweep across southern Alberta

CANADA

Friends and relatives helped James and Lorine Marshall remove all the furniture from their basement and from the main floor of their riverfront home in Medicine Hat, Alta. And then throughout Thursday and Friday morning, as the raging South Saskatchewan River drew ever closer, they helped to make sandbags to keep the water out. There were about 30 volunteers in the yard when they finally lost the battle—and the sandbag wall sprang a leak. Dirty brown water gushed across the lawn, through the windows and into the Marshalls’ home. “We lost it about noon or so,” said a dejected James Marshall, 56, staring at the water flowing across what used to be a pretty lawn and garden. In the middle of the backyard, a studio where he sculpts murals out of clay bricks lay in two feet of water. And by late afternoon, the water in the basement was nearly six feet deep—lapping at the fifth stair of a circular stairway heading down from the kitchen. “It’s just devastating,” said Marshall. ‘You never dream that it will happen this bad.”

In fact, the floods that swept across southern Alberta and a corner of southeastern British Columbia last week were among the worst this century. Rivers flowing out of the

Rocky Mountains were already swollen with spring runoff when the area was hit by torrential rains—as much as 12 inches in 18 hours. That created a roiling surge of water that raced down mountain valleys and out onto the Prairies, where rivers overflowed their banks, swamping towns, sweeping away livestock and wildlife, and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. The floods also overwhelmed a sewage treatment plant in Leth-

bridge, Alta., forcing the city to dump raw sewage into the river. Officials in Medicine Hat downstream said that their water treatment facility could handle the sewage, already highly diluted by the large volume of water. Meanwhile, police were still searching for a Ferme, B.C., man whose pickup truck was found on its side in the swollen Bull River near

Cranbrook, B.C. There were no other reports of missing people or casualties as of late last week.

The floods coincided with one of the worst forest-fire seasons across the northern Prairie provinces and the Northwest Territories. Even while families in Medicine Hat were fleeing the river, more than 350 residents of Norman Wells in the Territories were being moved to Yellowknife, 400 miles away by air, after flames leapt a 1,500-foot rock outcropping east of the town. Alberta alone had already lost 540,000 acres—more than 800 square miles—to the fires as of late last week, compared with just 14,000 acres at the same point last year.

The Alberta government has already spent $15.7 million to battle the blazes in northern Alberta. And now fanners and homeowners who have been swamped by the floods in the south are asking for disaster assistance; individual flood insurance is not generally available. The worsthit areas included Pincher Creek in southwestern Alberta, Fort Macleod and farms along the Oldman River. And in High River, 40 km south of Calgary, Mayor Eldon Couey said that almost a third of the 2,600 homes in the town of 7,000 were damaged when the Highwood River overflowed its banks. As the waters receded, noted Couey, they left “a terrible mess—gooey, mucky-looking silt, two or three inches deep.”

Medicine Hat was the last major centre to be hit by the floods. The Oldman and Bow rivers converge to form the South Saskatchewan just west of the city of 45,000. And Environmental Protection officials had more than two days to plot the advance of the surging waters. Last Thursday, although it was incongruously warm and sunny—and so dry that farmers just outside town were irrigating their fields—officials in Medicine Hat began evacuating the frail and

the elderly from low-lying areas. City residents lined bridges and riverbanks, watching the steady rise of the churning brownish river as it swept along huge logs and other debris.

Early Friday morning, the water spilled over the banks, and by 10 a.m., the river was lapping at many homes. City officials had already urged the evacuation of more than 5,500 people from about 1,500 houses. At one point, they also closed four city bridges because a partially

full propane tank was spotted heading down the river. Officials feared that it might hit a bridge and explode, but police shot holes in it to release the gas and the tank passed through the city without causing damage. The South Saskatchewan peaked at a height of 32 feet on Friday night, causing flood damage to more than 1,000 homes. But by Saturday, the waters were beginning to recede.

Through it all, many residents chose to stay in their houses to fight the advancing tide. In Harlow, a low-lying neighborhood on the south side of the river, Les Bayer and a handful of volunteers labored at the home of Bayer’s Q elderly parents—hauling up buckets of sewer I water that had backed up into the basement. \ Across the bridge in Riverside, Pansy and §Fred Fisher, both in their 70s, watched as priver water three feet deep backed up against a the back wall of their bungalow. But plastic £ sheeting, plywood and sandbags that their son “ and other volunteers had erected the day before kept the inside of their home mostly dry. “We’ve been here 48 years,” said Pansy Fisher. “In 1953, the river came up and covered the patio. But it hasn’t ever been this high.” When the waters finally began to recede from Medicine Hat, provincial officials said that the worst of the flooding was over. But in the raging rivers’ wake, the grim task of cleaning waterand mud-soaked homes, and assessing the damage, was just getting under way.

MARY NEMETH in Medicine Hat