Devastation greets returning High River residents

HIGH RIVER — An uneasy mix of typical suburbia and ghost town greeted the first group of High River homeowners returning to their flood-ravaged town.

While nearly all streets remained empty on Saturday, about 5,000 residents returned after provincial officials enacted the first of a three-phase re-entry plan, allowing owners of 1,817 northwest homes to see for themselves the devastating water damage in some parts of town and, in other cases, untouched properties with merely overgrown lawns.

Indeed, some empty streets and children’s play parks appeared left in pristine condition. But more than 140 homes will clearly have to be demolished, residents learned Saturday, swallowed up by murky high water that shows only slight signs of receding.

More than 950 residents were told Saturday they can move back in. For many, the first steps on the road home were emotional.

“I just want to go see my neighbours,� said Courtney Charles, whose home was rated as habitable.

Others weren’t so lucky — and were clearly shocked by what they saw on their 30-minute tour of their town.

Many roads remain impassable. Underwater neighbourhoods, including the Sunshine Lake area, are uninhabitable.

The Highwood golf course has largely vanished, with its closely clipped grass now caked in thick layers of mud cracked like flagstone.

Kyle Hansen’s home backs onto the fourth hole, which was his favourite par 5 on the course. Ten days after he was forced to flee, his view includes a field of the brownish-grey dried mud.

“Happy to be back, but sad for all the mess,� he said.

Garage doors are twisted, vehicles swept off to the side, debris littering the ground.

The town remains under a state of emergency, with the majority of its 13,000 inhabitants displaced.

More residents may be allowed in between three and five days, officials said.

Crews are assessing houses and businesses for the second of three phases of the community re-entry plan.

“Here’s the problem: as the assessment teams go through, we don’t know what’s under the ground, we don’t know the state of the sewer system, we don’t know the state of the gas infrastructure,� said Shane Schrieber, acting director of emergency management.

Of 500 businesses needing inspections, nearly 130 are complete.

On Saturday, 639 homes were listed as “green� (habitable), 318 as “yellow� (requiring cleanup but livable) and 719 as “orange� (damaged and enter at your own risk).

There are 141 listed as red, which means they are uninhabitable and dangerous.

In neighbourhoods like Sunshine Lake and Hampton Hills, the high water levels are slow to recede, leaving many walkout basements fully submerged.

While crews have placed large pumps to remove the muddy river water, the levels remain high above ground level.

“There’s no place to pump,� said Schreiber.

Many families remain frustrated and are anxious to re-enter the town to see the damage for themselves. They want to start moving forward with their lives.

“We ask for your patience in this, safety is the No. 1 priority,� said Rick Fraser, associate minister of regional recovery and reconstruction.

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