CALGARY, Alberta — About 65,000 residents of Calgary were being allowed to return to their homes Sunday to assess the damage from flooding that has left Alberta’s largest city awash in debris and dirty water.
Some were returning to properties spared by flooding, but others were facing extensive repairs to homes and businesses.
About 75,000 people had to leave at the height of the crisis as the Elbow and Bow rivers surged over their banks Thursday night. Three bodies have been recovered since the flooding began in southern Alberta and a fourth person was still missing.
“We’ve turned a corner, but we are still in a state of emergency,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. “Our hearts and thought and prayers are with our colleagues downstream.”
People in the eastern part of the province headed for higher ground as the flood threat remained. In Medicine Hat, Alberta, thousands of people have left their homes as water levels rose on the South Saskatchewan River. The river was not expected to crest until Monday, but by Sunday morning it was lapping over its banks in low-lying areas and people were busy laying down thousands of sandbags.
In Calgary, Nenshi said crews were working hard to restore services and he thanked residents for heeding the call to conserve drinking water.
He had already warned that recovery will be a matter of “weeks and months” and the damage costs will be “lots and lots.”
While pockets of the city’s core were drying out, other areas were still submerged. The mayor didn’t anticipate that anyone could return to work downtown until at least the middle of the week. The downtown area was evacuated Friday.
The city’s public schools were also to remain closed Monday.
Nathan MacBey and his wife found muddy water had risen to about kitchen counter level in their Calgary home at the peak of the flooding. His basement was still swamped and the main floor of the home was covered in wet mud.
“This is unprecedented,” said the father of two, his voice cracking with emotion. “Not being able to give our kids a home, that’s tough. … We can survive, it’s just the instability for the kids.”
Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said that 27 communities in Alberta were under states of emergency – with some areas slowly starting to emerge from the watery onslaught and others still bracing for it
Griffiths said no place has been hit harder than the town of High River south of Calgary and it will be some time before residents there will be allowed back.
The waiting and worrying were causing tensions and emotions to run high, but Griffiths said virtually every home in the town of 18,000 would need to be inspected.
More than 2,200 military personnel were involved in flood relief efforts, along with nine helicopters. Soldiers were helping evacuate an area around the mountain town of Canmore, laying down sandbags in Medicine Hat and assisting in road repairs in Kananaskis Country, west of Calgary.
In High River, about 350 members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry from Edmonton have been assisting police in reaching homes that still haven’t been checked. Armored vehicles have been churning through submerged streets and Zodiac watercraft have been used to reach the hardest-hit areas.
High River Mayor Emile Blokland said the town’s infrastructure has been dealt a critical blow and there is no timeline for when citizens can return.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sgt. Brian Jones said the atmosphere was “surreal.”
“We’re finding a great deal of mud, a great deal of sludge on the streets. The homes are secure. It’s almost like time stopped,” he said.
Back in Calgary, the water has taken a toll outside residential neighborhoods as well. The Saddledome hockey arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames, was extensively damaged. The team said boards, dressing rooms, player equipment and several rows of seats were a total loss.
The rodeo and fair grounds of the world-famous Calgary Stampede were also swamped, although Nenshi was optimistic that things would be cleared up in time for the show to open July 5.
Nenshi said Sunday that all the major hotels in the downtown were closed and advised visitors to plan accordingly.
The federal Conservative party had planned to hold a policy convention in Calgary next weekend, but that’s been postponed and a new date hasn’t yet been set.
Canmore was one of the first communities hit when the flooding began on Thursday. Residents there have been allowed to return to 260 evacuated homes, but the Royal Canadian Mounted Police says 40 more are too damaged to allow people back.
In Saskatchewan, efforts are under way to move more than 2,000 people from their homes in a flood-prone part of the province’s northeast.