CALGARY — After watching Calgary and its neighbours struggle to cope with a catastrophic flood that has killed at least three people, communities downstream are bracing for their own crisis.
Water levels are rising in Medicine Hat, while officials with Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency are preparing for the possibility of an evacuation order for the community of Cumberland House by Monday.
Medicine Hat declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon, saying it was expecting its river to crest tonight. Ten thousand residents in low-lying areas were told they needed to be out of their homes by this morning.
“We’re planning for the worst,” Mayor Norm Boucher told the Medicine Hat News.
“We have to make sure that people are safe, and if we can protect some properties we will do that, but water and electricity are so important. People have to live and people will come backawe’ll come through this.”
Lethbridge was also preparing for high waters. No evacuations had been ordered, but Alberta Emergency Services was expecting a number of bridges to be washed out.
Saskatchewan’s Water Security Agency announced plans Friday to open floodgates along Lake Diefenbaker as water flows into the South Saskatchewan River from Alberta.
“The community of Cumberland House will need to be evacuated by Monday,” said the agency, adding the river is expected to be at 12 times its normal level. The move will impact about 800 people.
Meanwhile, Mounties confirmed that three bodies had been found in the Highwood River near High River. Their identities are not known, but earlier in the week a woman was swept away in her camper, a man was seen falling out of a canoe and witnesses reported seeing two male bodies floating down the river.
In Calgary, where some of the 75,000 flood evacuees were holding out hope they might soon be allowed back into their homes, city officials said on Saturday that its flooding situation is improving, but it will be a while before water levels go down.
People have been forced from their homes in more than two dozen neighbourhoods.
Residents in a portion of one of those neighbourhoods — the high ground portion of Discovery Ridge — have been allowed back.
Later today, officials are hoping to open up portions of six more neighbourhoods that didn’t flood.
“We’re anxious to get you back to your homes as quickly as we can,” police chief Rick Hanson said Friday night. “As areas become safe to return to, we’ll get the word to the emergency operations centre here and we’ll start facilitating the return of people.”
However, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the downtown area was still without power and remained off limits.
“It is extremely unlikely that people will be able to return to those buildings before the middle of next week,” he said. “We have to be very, very, very careful on this. We have a new strategy around ensuring those transformers don’t blow. But that strategy will take some days to continue to dry out.”
The flood has hit some of the city’s iconic structures hard. The Saddledome, home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames, was flooded up to the 10th row while water lapped at the roof of the chuckwagon barns at the grounds of the Calgary Stampede, which is scheduled to start in two weeks.
Nenshi also warned there could be another wave of danger ahead.
“There is a scenario in which upstream events at the dams further upstream from the city will lead to another surge in the Bow River,” he said. “We don’t know how realistic that scenario is, but we will have some hours warning if that actually happens.”
In the meantime, the mayor suggested residents across the city make preparations for power outages “just to be on the safe side,” and suggested that while drinking water has not been affected, “this is the time to be very judicious about your water use.”
Premier Alison Redford planned to visit Medicine Hat and High River today. On Friday, she and Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the flood zone; both said there will be funding available under provincial and federal disaster assistance programs under the usual formulas for such incidents.
Other politicians were also pitching in; Opposition Leader Danielle Smith spent much of Friday driving around High River looking for lost pets.
High River was one of the hardest-hit areas. It is estimated half the people experienced flooding in their homes. Roads and bridges have been swamped, police have cut off access to most of the town and helicopters have been circling overhead. Cars lie submerged in water, abandoned, while backhoes work in vain to push water back from houses.
Cheyenne Lowry, 18, said when the flood first hit, she ended up stranded at her brother’s house. Unsure if she would be rescued, she frantically phoned her father.
“I said, ‘if helicopters don’t come, I love you,’ ” she explained Friday from the Red Cross evacuation centre in nearby Blackie. “I was bawling … it was just disaster.”
She also described watching in horror as someone in a Honda Civic tried to cross a flooded bridge, only to get swept away by the current.
“He was stuck on a tree and he was still in his vehicle,” she said. “I started crying because there is nothing you can really do to help somebody that’s stuck on a tree in this water that you can’t get to.”
She saw other cars, houses and trailers sweep past. People in boats who tried to rescue residents with health issues floundered against the currents. One boat’s engine cut out and it started to take on water.
But Lowry said she feels uplifted by how the community is coming together to cope.
“I feel proud in a way, because everyone is here helping,” she said during a break from sorting donated clothing. “I’m really happy and proud to see that everyone is actually doing something about it.”
In fact, money-raising for the relief effort started in earnest Friday, with several corporations announcing large donations to the Red Cross and Alberta-based country music star Paul Brandt asking his fans to donate $10 each to a recovery fund.