HIGH RIVER, Alta. - Some evacuees forced out by flooding in the hardest-hit southern Alberta town will be walking through their doors Saturday for the first time in more than a week, but others could be waiting for another month or more.
The province announced Friday that it would be allowing about 5,000 residents from the northwest corner of High River to return to their homes for the first time in 10 days. But even those in line for a close-up look were warned that not everybody would be able to stay.
Shane Schreiber of Alberta Emergency Management cautioned that not all of the 1,000 homes in the neighbourhood would be livable because of flood damage.
Schreiber also explained that the phased re-entry of evacuees could take as long as five weeks for people from the most heavily devastated part of the town of 13,000.
He explained that one area he called "the big pond" needs to be pumped out and allowed to dry up.
"Sector 4 ... will take much longer ... because it's still under water," he said.
Bus tours started Friday night for some residents so they could at least get an idea of the damage the raging Highwood River did when it burst it banks June 20 and pushed muddy water the colour of chocolate milk down streets, into parks and through people's homes.
"Really not nice there," an emotional Jan Ramakrishnan told Global Calgary after getting a look at his mud-caked house. "I'm really sad."
The province also announced that construction of temporary housing had begun for those not able to live in their homes right away.
"Two-thirds of this community is still under water because it is a collection bowl for the water, which means we have much more challenging infrastructure needs to meet before we can allow people to roll back in," Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said at an update in High River.
He said there has been more significant infrastructure damage in the town than ever suffered anywhere else in the province in any kind of disaster.
Griffiths said power was starting to be restored, engineers were identifying which roads were safe and health and home inspectors were on the job.
The Alberta government has taken over recovery and rebuilding efforts in High River at the request of the town's mayor. The province has assumed responsibility for emergency operations, programs and services.
Mayor Emile Blokland said the floods that hit the town a week ago have been overwhelming and it's best if the province co-ordinates getting the community's back on its feet.
"It's become clear that the size and scope of this disaster is beyond anything we've ever seen before in Alberta," Blokland said at the same update in High River.
"It's even bigger that the destruction suffered by Slave Lake, as devastating as that was. The situation is simply much bigger, more complex and more difficult than our municipal council can handle," Blokland said.
"There are powers the province has and resources and expertise the province can marshal that are far beyond what our council can do -- and we'll need all those supports to get our town back on its feet."
Hundreds of homes and businesses -- about one-third of the town -- were destroyed two years ago when wildfires swept through Slave Lake in northern Alberta. Hundreds had to flee their homes and also were allowed to return in phases only.
Shreiber outlined that the High River re-entry would go from least to most affected areas. He said it would be three to five days before the next group of homeowners would be allowed in, five to seven days for the group after that and three to five weeks for people from the hardest hit section.
A government release said 8,250 High River evacuees had lined up Thursday to get pre-loaded debit cards and a similar number were expected Friday. The cards issued by the province are to cover immediate housing and day-to-day expenses -- $1,250 for each adult and $500 per child.
Tensions have been high in recent days as property owners have pressed officials to let them back into the town. Some have said they could see their homes from a distance and they looked fine.
Schreiber said homes that look to be dry on one particular sliver of land aren't necessarily safe.
"One of the problems is the infrastructure that supports all those homes is still all under water, so it's going to be dangerous. The homes may be above water, but all the power, sewer -- all that stuff -- is still under water."
About 50 residents camped out in a parking lot just outside the evacuation zone listening to a broadcast of the government's plans on a radio.
"There was a mix of relief and a little bit of dismay," said Floyd Langenhoff, a former town councillor.
"We don't see any reason why we can't be let in right now. We're tired of the procedure that's been put in place to allow us back into town."
Langenhoff, who is one of the first people being allowed to go home Saturday, said delaying the return might have made it too late to save some homes.
"I think a lot of people are going to be displaced from their homes. They're going to be horribly upset at the condition of their homes.
"Structural damage is one thing, but because of the delays and the time it has taken us to get in, we're going to lose houses because of mould and issues like that."
In Calgary, where the Elbow and Bow rivers swamped low-lying areas and much of the downtown, the emergency management director also had some bad news.
Bruce Burrell said it's estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 of the 75,000 people forced out at the height of the flood waters would be out of their severely damaged homes for "a significant period of time."
"We do have a lot of people who this is going to take a very traumatic toll on," he said.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford acknowledged the psychological toll of the disaster by announcing a chief mental health officer for the province. Dr. Michael Drew is to co-ordinate mental health resources, provide information and ensure "the emotional needs of flooding victims are addressed and met."
In Medicine Hat, where flooding was bad early in the week, but not as extensive as had been anticipated, the city lifted a restriction on water use.
Environment Canada was forecasting sunny, hot weather in most of southern Alberta for the Canada Day long weekend.
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