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Aug29ThuIn the wake of the worst flooding catastrophe in Alberta's history, The Salvation Army offers hope. August 29, 2013 by Kristin Ostensen
June 20 began as a typical morning for Lieutenant Cory Fifield, corps officer in High River, Alta. He arrived at the corps office, started on his daily tasks, and was on the phone when his thrift store manager ran in and told him that there was water coming down the street.
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“I finished my call and when I went out to look, I realized that it was not just a little water—it was raging water,” recalls Lieutenant Fifield. He and the manager jumped into the Army's program truck and went to get sandbags, but by the time they returned, the building—situated less than 250 metres from the bulging Highwood River—was surrounded by water.
“We immediately evacuated the store, threw the sandbags down and started packing clothes and whatever we could find against the doors to try to limit the damage,” he says. “Then we went to see what else we could do.”
They were driving around town when they came across a member of their congregation who was trying to get to her house to sandbag it.
“Little did she know that her house was already under several feet of water and her husband, who is almost 90 years old, was still inside,” says Lieutenant Fifield. “We followed her to her house on the riverside and were able to find an old door, which we used to carry her husband to safety, along with a garbage bucket with a few of his belongings.”
Around lunchtime, he joined his wife, Lieutenant Kelly Fifield, at the local high school, which had been transformed into an evacuation centre. Already, three quarters of the town was under evacuation notice, and the centre was moving from the high school to the arena in nearby Nanton.
The 30-kilometre drive was treacherous. “There was water rushing over the highway, and I had to stop at one point to avoid a five-metre log,” recalls Lieutenant Cory Fifield. But they made it safely to the evacuation centre and spent the next several hours helping others get settled before they drove to Calgary to stay with friends.
Though reports of flooding were becoming widespread as the day wore on, the mandatory evacuation notice still took Karen Livick, executive director of Calgary's Centre of Hope, by surprise.
“The centre is about five blocks from the Bow River,” she says. “I was watching the Bow rise and could see it was getting high but thought, It's never going to make it over to us.”
Around 6:30 p.m., after receiving word that the centre might be evacuated, staff gave out notices to all 353 clients at the centre, advising them to pack their bags just in case. When the city issued an official evacuation notice at 8 p.m., the centre sprang into action.
“The big question for us was, where are all our clients going to go?” says Trevor Loria, director of the men's residential program.
Loria and Livick called partner agencies in non-evacuated areas and arranged for the city to send buses to the centre to transport clients. Its 56 most-vulnerable clients—the elderly and those with health issues—were given places at the Army's family resource centre outside downtown Calgary, while the rest went to other shelters, evacuation centres and to stay with friends and family.
Everyone was out within three hours, leaving Livick, Loria and Peter Palaj, director of facilities, at the centre to wait.
“We have a lot of clients who work nights,” explains Livick, “so we stayed through the night, answering questions and directing clients where they should go.”
By the time Livick left around 9 a.m., the centre had lost power.
“Fire trucks were stuck in the water around us,” she recalls. “We made it out in the nick of time.”
“The night of the flood, cellphone service was terrible. We had an emergency disaster services (EDS) community response unit (CRU) from Calgary coming to help us, but we weren't able to contact them,” Lieutenant Fifield says. “They couldn't get through to Nanton because the roads were closed, so they were redirected to Blackie, about 30 kilometres east of High River.”
In the immediate aftermath, the Army's relief efforts were focused on many Alberta locations, including Drumheller, Medicine Hat, Calgary and Blackie, where the Fifields provided pastoral care, emotional support and practical assistance—tracking people down and making sure people had registered as evacuees. With a CRU, a team from Lethbridge, Alta., along with members of the High River corps, provided meals for 300 people daily.
“The first couple of days were pretty scattered,” recalls Lieutenant Fifield. “No one was prepared for the flood to be on this scale. Once it became clear that we wouldn't be going home soon, we began to look for options in terms of refrigeration for food, garbage, linens. People only had the shirts on their backs, so we had to get clothes in.”
On June 24, the mayor of High River came to the evacuation centre with aerial photos of the town.
“After that, things really began to shift because people were able to visualize what had happened in High River,” Lieutenant Fifield says. “Most people left thinking they would be away for a couple of days and then back home. And when the pictures went up, they realized that their homes were under two to three metres of water. People cried as they looked at pictures, trying to find their homes.”
Livick was allowed back into the Centre of Hope on Saturday, June 22, to assess the damage.
“There was a lot of debris around the building, alarms were going off,” she remembers. “It was very eerie. The building has been open for 12 years and this was the first time it was empty.
“I went into the stairwell, going from the main floor to the basement, and that's where I first encountered the water,” she continues. “It was surreal to see everything floating around down there, to see water up to the steering-wheel level of our program vehicles.”
The whole basement and parking garage of the Centre of Hope was flooded. Their commercial kitchen, laundry facility, maintenance area, storage and archives—all destroyed.
Even as the centre braced for a significant clean-up effort, its first priority was still its clients. From the centre's temporary base at the family resource centre, Loria organized teams of two staff who went to all the evacuation centres to locate their clients.
“Once we made sure that they were safe, our priority was to attend to their immediate needs, such as medications, clothing and income support from the government,” says Loria. The diligent efforts of the staff ensured that no client was forgotten.
As the scale of the disaster became apparent, The Salvation Army expanded its efforts across southern Alberta and established an incident command team to manage operations. The nine-member team was made up of Salvation Army personnel from Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario—the first time in Canada that the Army had tapped into all nine EDS positions.
For the first week, the team was led by John McEwan, divisional disaster management and emergency services director, British Columbia Division, who arrived in Calgary on June 24.
“In that first week, we found out that there were people in arenas and school gyms in places like Nanton, Okotoks, Blackie and Canmore, and they all needed feeding,” says McEwan. “So then we were able to plan where our emergency vehicles would go to meet those needs.
“We also had two trucks roving up and down the streets of Calgary, while people were cleaning out their houses, handing out food and cold drinks,” he notes.
On some days, the Army's eight CRUs served as many as 3,000 meals, and by July 15, the Army had provided food and hydration to more than 41,000 people. “It's fantastic, when you think about what we were able to accomplish,” says McEwan.
On Friday, June 28, the Army received a request from the provincial government to have emotional and spiritual care personnel in High River for the foreseeable future to lend support to residents as the town, which had been sealed, allowed them to return to their homes.
Army personnel accompanied residents while they toured their neighbourhoods by bus, and provided spiritual, emotional and practical care at the rodeo grounds and the airport where residents registered to find out the condition of their homes.
In the long, hot days that followed, the Army provided food, hydration and sunscreen to people as they registered, and roving teams walked the streets where residents were in the process of cleaning their damaged homes, providing food, water and a listening ear.
Jeannette Parsons, who arrived in High River on June 30 with an EDS team from Oshawa Temple, Ont., was on one of those roving teams.
Seeing people come face to face with the destruction of their homes was “heartbreaking,” she says. “The first gentleman I spoke to—he was the first person back on his street—said, 'I know I'm gonna need a big cry soon.' He was trying to clean up—he didn't want the children to see the mess up there.”
As more residents returned to their homes, yards and sidewalks became filled with broken furniture, dirt-encrusted fridges, spoiled food and ruined mattresses. Thick dried mud caked everything in the water's path.
“There were a lot of tears, but the people were so grateful,” Parsons adds. “They acted like you gave them a million dollars when really all you'd given was a bottle of water.”
While some Salvation Army personnel offered assistance on the frontlines of the disaster, others were working behind the scenes, in areas of town that were still closed to the public.
“There were times when you had to have a password from the government to get into certain sections of town, but we would drive up in our Salvation Army vehicles and the RCMP would say, 'We know what you're here for,' and let us in,” says Perron Goodyear, divisional emergency disaster services director, Ontario Great Lakes Division. As part of the incident command team, he was responsible for operations. “Another group of ours was invited into a closed area to serve first responders and work crews, and so they were given government IDs to give them all access.
“Being welcomed into areas where nobody else was allowed was a privilege,” he adds. “The shield on our clothing really opened doors and new avenues for ministry.”
Coming back to High River was a strange experience for Lieutenant Fifield.
“When you drive around town there are dirt lines on all the buildings, showing how high the water was,” he says. The water line on the building that housed the Army's thrift store and family services office was above the door, almost three metres off the ground.
On July 1, he and Lieutenant Kelly Fifield, along with members of the incident command team, were allowed access to the building, which included the town's only food bank. The damage was extensive—the only salvageable items were metal clothing racks from the store.
Just up the road, the church basement had filled up with two metres of water, about 30 centimetres of which remained when Army personnel gained access to the building. The basement had to be gutted, right down to the studs.
After the flood waters receded in Calgary, the Centre of Hope began the cleaning and restoration process, which culminated with the reopening of the centre on Canada Day.
The day before, the centre's 100 staff, along with their families and other volunteers, blitzed the centre, going room to room, stripping each bed of its linens, cleaning mattresses, surfaces and washrooms. With no elevator to aid them as they cleaned the centre's eight floors, they formed an assembly line, tossing bags of linen down the stairs so they could be washed. Kitchen staff sanitized and stocked the centre's kitchen, determined to have lunch ready for clients the next day.
“When the centre opened at 9 a.m. on Canada Day, we had a line-up of guys,” says Livick. “Many of them thanked us for getting the centre up and running again. They were just glad to be home.”
As the flood emergency in Calgary came to a close, The Salvation Army focused its relief efforts primarily on High River, where residents are picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
Paula Ross, an EDS volunteer from New Westminster Citadel, B.C., was stationed at the rodeo grounds where she handed out drinks, sandwiches—even slices of pie—to residents waiting for news about their homes. But she quickly found herself offering more than food.
“I saw a woman crying across the parking lot, so I ran over to her,” she says, “but when I got there I didn't know what to say. I had a little package of Kleenex in my hand so I said, 'All I have is a Kleenex and a hug.' And that was all she wanted. I just held her as she cried and we talked.”
At the same time, Ross said the people she encountered were very resilient.
“One family I met had got a big yellow bucket on wheels for washing the floor, and their little girl put her brother in it and wheeled him around the sidewalk while he giggled,” she recalls. “I didn't meet victims—I met survivors.”
On July 15, the Army opened a disaster assistance centre in the parking lot of the corps building, which distributed food hampers, along with $100 RBC Visa cards, clothing and other miscellaneous items. The centre served more than 1,100 families in its first two weeks.
The Army's Foothills Church held its first Sunday service since the flood on July 14, using the town's Alliance church—the only operational church in High River. Some families in the corps escaped damage to their homes, while others have lost everything.
“That service was very significant,” says Lieutenant Cory Fifield. “It was the first time that a lot of them had the chance to sit and talk and see how the others were doing. It was a return to normalcy—the fact that we, as a church, are still together.”
The town of High River faces many challenges ahead. With so much devastation, it will take months and millions of dollars for the town to rebuild—but The Salvation Army will be there, supporting residents and meeting needs as they arise.
Click here to read more about the Army's efforts following the flood.