By Lauren Krugel and Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press
June 23, 2013 - 1:02 PM
CALGARY/MEDICINE HAT - About 65,000 Calgarians 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.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi gave strict orders about what to watch for as residents re-entered their neighbourhoods, but he also redirected people's focus downstream. He said communities such as Medicine Hat were still bracing for the fury of flooding and his city would offer whatever assistance it could.
"We've turned a corner, but we are still in a state of emergency," he said. "Our hearts and thought and prayers are with our colleagues downstream.
Some Calgarians 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.
Nenshi spoke firmly at Sunday's news briefing about how people should go about checking their properties.
He advised them to turn around if water were still evident on streets and sidewalks and said that under no circumstances should they enter homes if water welled over entry ways.
"If the road and sidewalk are not dry, or if there is flood water when you open the door, leave immediately." he said. "If there is water above electrical outlets, leave immediately.
"Electricity and water do not mix. Be very careful."
He suggested homeowners use letter-sized sheets of paper taped to windows to communicate with utility workers: "Gas needed. Electricity needed. Water-pumping needed."
"I know people are excited to get home. I know people really need to see the conditions of their houses. But remember, safety first."
Nenshi said crews were working hard to restore services and he thanked Calgarians 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.
Public schools were also to remain closed Monday.
Prince Edward Island's transport minister called the city offering help from the province's engineers to ensure that Calgary's bridges are safe.
Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said that 27 communities overall were under states of emergency — some areas slowly starting to emerge from the watery onslaught and others still bracing for it.
Three bodies have been recovered since the flooding began and a fourth person was still missing.
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 if 18,000 would need to be inspected.
"We want to make sure that every person who has been dislocated is safe."
Tensions were also rising downstream and to the east where 10,000 people in Medicine Hat's flood zone were instructed to head for higher ground as the powerful South Saskatchewan River rose.
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.
A spokesman for the city of more than 60,000 said a park and several seniors recreational centres had been cleared out in anticipation of flooding and parts of the city near the river had been closed. Police were patrolling those areas.
The South Saskatchewan slices through Medicine Hat and three bridges connect the two halves. Officials were warning that two of the bridges would be closed and traffic could potentially be barred from the third as well, cutting off the two sides from each other.
Mayor Norm Boucher said most people ordered to leave had done so, but a handful were refusing. He warned that officials could not guarantee their safety.
"We're going to go around again to make sure that they're out of there, because the water will be even higher than this and it may be very difficult to reach anybody," said Boucher.
Ron Robinson, director of emergency measures, was asked if people could be forcibly removed from their homes.
Yes, he replied. "They can be fined, they can be jailed. We need to protect lives even if they don't want us to."
Alberta's premier urged the community to stay strong.
"This is going to be a very challenging time for Medicine Hat," Alison Redford said on a visit there Saturday evening.There's going to be a lot of uncertainty and people are going to be afraid. I want people to know we have the opportunity to get through this."
Back in Calgary, emergency measures chief Bruce Burrell warned that despite the improving situation, the city was still in emergency mode.
"We made it to this point with no serious injuries," he added. "Let's keep it that way."
The water has taken a toll outside residential neighbourhoods as well. The Saddledome hockey arena, home of the NHL's Calgary Flames, was extensively damaged. The teams has said boards, dressing rooms, player equipment and several rows of seats are 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.
The mountain town of 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 RCMP say 40 more are too damaged to allow people back.
In High River, about 350 members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry from Edmonton have been assisting RCMP in reaching homes that still haven't been checked. Armoured vehicles have been churning through submerged streets and Zodiac watercraft have been used to reach the hardest-hit areas.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the population of Medicine Hat was 10,000.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2013