I've been asked by a few people about my experiences these past few days. I'm honestly a little upset I have enough time to type about it, but in the game of "hurry-up-and-wait", what else can I do?
Yesterday started a little late for me, I usually wake up around 5 or 6 AM, but this time I woke at 7:30 AM after having stayed up late trying to recover thousands of family photos from a computer that crashed. I was unsuccessful, but little did I know that would be the least of my worries by the end of the day.
I went to school, my wife having just told me that the community of Wallaceville in High River had been evacuated at 7 AM. No matter, I thought, that area gets evacuated every year, it seems. Strolled into class with no worries.
After about an hour of teaching, 9:45 AM an announcement comes on, which shocks me because we have kids writing finals and diplomas. It's an evacuation notice. My band room looks out onto the back field, so I took a peek, and saw the river gushing down the catch basin behind the school into the back field. I told my kids to get their coats and go to the front of the school.
Within 10 minutes, we were loading busses, and the water was in the back parking lot of the school (Notre Dame Collegiate, for those who want to look up the location). Within the next 10 minutes, I was on the 3rd bus out, and the river was gushing passed the school, blocking the preferred exit out. If I had been standing on that sidewalk, it was powerful enough that it would have knocked me over. As we drove away, the bus driver pointed upstream of that gushing water and said "there is my home."
The bus took the newly built George Groeneveld Crossing of the Highwood River to get to the evacuation centre at Highwood High School. The water was obscenely high, and as we drove past the public middle school Senator Riley, I said to my students "they'll be evacuated any minute now, too." That fact was an unusual one.
We arrived at the evacuation centre, and there were already a number of elderly people there, and the chaos of trying to make sure we had all the students we were supposed to have, ensued. Our staff was awesome keeping track in such strange circumstances. Some kids left for home from the school, and did not actually go home, instead going to some friends' places thinking that this was just like any other flood our town had. Nonetheless, we still managed to get every student's location sorted out.
Meanwhile, I don't sit well. So I did something. Anything. I got kids handing out water bottles to those in the evac centre who couldn't move. Kids then started taking over other odd jobs at the evac centre, like registering people, setting up coffee stations, and such. People with pets were told to take them to the stage to keep them away from people with allergies. We got blanket stations, a public address system, and chairs and tables set up. It seemed like chaos, but not as bad as some thought.
At this time, I guess I started looking official enough that people started asking me questions. One lady was frantic trying to find her mother, who had been stranded earlier in Wallaceville. It took a couple hours for the mother to show up, but that ended up being the first reuniting that I saw that day, and it was easily a memorable one.
Almost immediately after my school arrived, Spitzee School arrived. They did not have any water or food except for the bag lunches kids brought, so we brought some to them from the evac centre, as those students were holed up in the Highwood High School library. Spitzee teachers had those students well in hand.
We got word around 11 AM that Senator Riley School was on its way. The entrance to the evac centre, which was in the Highwood gymnasium, was clogged with people, so the decision was made to put the Senator Riley kids in the opposite end of the school. That worked well, but they were also without water, so we brought some to them. By this time, most of the families of my students had picked their kids up and left.
During this entire time, I'm frantically trying to charge my cell phone and keep in contact with my family. My cell was dead earlier, so I had to pull out a laptop and charge it with that. Thankfully I had my laptop with me, along with my students' completed final exams. I'm not sure they appreciated that too much, but they did well, so I didn't want to lose those marks.
At about the same time Senator Riley arrived, a reporter from La Premiere Chaine de Radio-Canada arrived. They were immediately directed away at the door, being told to go to the Emergency Operations Centre. They asked me where that was, I said the last I had heard was that it was at Town Hall, and someone shouted at me that they had moved it to the Fire Hall. That made sense, as Town Hall was unexpectedly under water. The reporter asked me why they would set it up at Town Hall in the first place. I asked them to go to the EOC and ask their ridiculously irrelevant questions there.
Volunteers started pouring in, many of whom were students of our school. "Where do we go to sandbag?" I explained that the last I had heard was that sandbagging was happening at the Bob Snodgrass Recreation Complex, where the new fieldhouse was being built. I was told that too had moved to the Boston Pizza parking lot. That's when it was starting to set in with me that this was bad. Really bad.
At about 12:30 PM, someone got on the PA and told us to expect to be at the evacuation centre for a few days, and to get settled in. That story was about to change, too.
At about that same time, I saw the mayor of High River, Emile Blokland, walking around the evacuation centre. At the time, I honestly thought he looked a little bewildered, but it turns out he was just trying to find anyone in need of comforting. He and I talked a bit later, and he told me that his place was okay so far, but he was just trying to be that positive face for people.
Shortly after that, High River Times Editor Kevin Rushworth came in, drenched, looking a little like a wet dog who had been swimming for far too long. It turned out that wasn't far from the truth. His house was gone already, and the Times office was underwater too. He couldn't find one of his fellow reporters, and was genuinely concerned for him. It took over an hour to hear from him, and thankfully he was already in Calgary putting the paper together. I don't think it ever got delivered.
It is now 1:15 PM, and I just received a message on twitter that we were issued a flash flood alert. I told Kevin about it. Within the next 15 minutes we were told we needed to prepare to evacuate the evacuation centre. There was no shock anymore, we were now at a point of "just get it done".
Most of the teachers for the school had left. One of our education assistants, Sue Mustard, who was planning on hosting a year-end party the next day, said that she lived in Montrose so she would likely be safe, and people could crash there if they needed to. Remember this, because it matters later on. Nonetheless, there were still two students left behind, one whose parents we could not locate, the other who was an exchange student whose host family was already surrounded by water and couldn't escape. The last teacher out aside from me was our vice-principal, who refused to leave until she knew what I was doing, and whether I could take custody of those two boys. I texted my wife, and told her sternly to get out of dodge. Thankfully she did. I stayed. When she said she'd leave, I remember an overwhelming sense of relief, but it couldn't last long, because the evacuation order to go to Nanton was now public knowledge, and there was work to be done. Soon, the one boy whose parents couldn't be contacted was contacted by the staff at our elementary school, and was picked up shortly after. The exchange student with me, Ken, stayed in the evac centre for a time.
I went to the front of the school to see what was needed for preparing for the evac. They told me that traffic in the parking lot was horrible, and that they needed someone to direct traffic. So I placed myself in the intersection, and started waving people through in various directions. People came with food, and that is when I discovered that homemade food was not accepted, because food safety could not be guaranteed. I couldn't believe that there were people coming in with perfectly good chili, that had to be turned away. All they wanted to do was help. I'm sorry that those who brought that food felt like their efforts were in vain. Still we trudged on.
A man I now refer to as "Peace Officer Steve" drove up and asked if I needed help. I asked if he had one of those reflective yellow construction jerseys. He said no, so I told him where to park and to help in the evac centre. It didn't clue in to me until a couple other vehicles went by that I just told a cop where to go and how to get there.
Busses started to get loaded, mostly with elderly and infirm. I remember sending 3 busses out before long.
A truck with oxygen tanks arrived, adament that he needed to deliver this oxygen. I had to be adament that he could not, as we would just have to load it all up again and send it to Nanton, but that he should check. So he parked and checked, and before long, he was gone with his load.
I have to say I was a little frustrated with people who just wanted to park as close to the doors of the evac centre as possible. If all they were doing was picking people up, they could park anywhere ... we needed the closest access for those with mobility issues.
Ken came out and told me he was being told to get on a bus. I told him to get on one, and that I'd be a few busses behind him. He got on one, and I sent that bus away. But then the story changed.
Shelley, the lady in charge of the evacuation centre, came to tell me that the busses will be coming back, and they'll need a place to go. I told her I knew where I'd have them park, but I really didn't. She explained that Highway 2 was now closed with water flowing over it, and most of the busses were being sent back. I asked where to tell people the evacuation centre was moving to. She didn't know. Nobody did.
I kept directing traffic. Somehow I was given word that we were shifting direction to Blackie. I asked someone to tell Shelley not to leave without me. They came back and told me they had me covered. Helicopters were flying overhead, dropping people off in the back of the Highwood High School parking lot; evidently nobody had told them we were trying to evacuate.
At about 2:00 PM, a fellow came out of the building shouting at people to evacuate. The evacuation centre was mostly empty, and now people who were just hanging around were told to get on a bus and get out. I kept directing traffic. By this time, I had seen no evidence of flooding since I drove past the river on my way to Highwood High School. It was a little surreal.
Finally, Shelley came out and told me to get on a bus. We helped a lady in a wheelchair get on, and off we went. As we went around the loop around the school, I watched a deer running away from the water, absolutely soaked, not caring how close it was to humans. It didn't seem to care, it was alive and that was all that mattered.
The bus ride was the first time I had calm. It wasn't calm though. It seemed as though all cell phone service was out, so I couldn't call my wife. Later we discovered that Rogers clients were still okay, although their service was intermittent because of the load on the system. People on the bus were exhausted, scared, and asking me how long it was until Blackie. They all had high spirits, but it was almost as if their spirits were defying reality. They knew this was bad, but there was nothing that could be done about it. So they had better be as upbeat as possible, and they were doing that marvelously.
We arrived at the Blackie school and unloaded. I got in the gym, and a migraine started setting in. I found Ken, happy to see me, but also lost in his own world in his iPod. It was the first time, as a teacher, I enjoyed seeing that device. I sat for a couple hoping for the peace to relax my migraine. It didn't happen.
The building was chaotic. Direction was hard to come by. The phones worked, so I got on one and called out to my father in Didsbury who I knew now had my wife and kids. I told them I was safe in Blackie, and that I would likely not be in contact with them for a while. How true that was, because shortly after that phone call, all phone lines went out. No internet, no phones, no cell service (we hadn't discovered Rogers was working yet). But we had shelter and the Salvation Army had a truck serving water, sodas, soup and hot dogs. And in that, there was relief.
Still, it was obvious Shelley was overwhelmed. The registration table was a mess of people shouting, asking questions, trying to figure out where they were supposed to go. Oddly, more busses weren't coming, and it seemed as though a fraction of the people I saw at Highwood was actually in Blackie. We had discovered that the bus of elderly that had made it through to Nanton had been separated from the second bus which carried their medication. Someone went to work on that, and I am only assuming that was sorted out. A Search and Rescue person named Kim was in the Blackie School gym, which was only the size of a single basketball court, and she was trying to make people comfortable and give first aid. Eventually a Nurse arrived, and that's when things started to take shape. A message board was set up, two separate rooms for pets were set up, and a TV and toys for the kids were set up in the gym as well. There were a lot of kids.
Nonetheless, there was still no order yet. Thankfully, Peace Officer Steve was there, and two off-duty law enforcement officers had arrived, one with a wife who also had emergency management training. The Foothills Superintendent was there, as were a couple of other High River school administrators. Soon they all jumped in and sat down for a meeting to sort out the next steps, the first of which was to try and find a bullhorn and get a head count. A bullhorn was not available, but I got a head count, and when I was done, they had a plan. Soon people were getting keys to the neighbouring community centre and hockey arena and starting to set them up.
Some busses were arriving, although it did not feel like they were coming fast enough. The Principal of Spitzee School Kevin Newman and I just tried to help people off the bus and get comfortable, fed, dry and give bottles of water. People began asking me what they could do as volunteers. All I could tell them was to make people comfortable. I know it didn't feel like much, but I later learned that it was more important than I could imagine.
Parents of some of our school kids were at Blackie looking for them. Husbands were looking for wives. I heard a story of a woman who was seen on the top of an RV, and when the crews got there the woman was gone. Nobody knew if she had been saved by someone else. Stories of people having been saved by combines, manure spreaders, and dump trucks were coming in. Still only a couple busses had arrived. Then Peace Officer Steve came out and said we needed to get everyone inside for some announcements. My band teacher voice became the bullhorn, and we ushered everyone inside. It was now 7:45 PM. I had just finished a couple hot dogs.
They announced that people who needed medical attention were to stay in the Blackie school, as that is where the nursing staff was. People who were still missing family members were asked to stay at the school, too. However, all those families who were already reunited and in good health were asked to go to the Community Centre in Blackie instead, and Peace Officer Steve started escorting people there. There was chaos for the first bit after this announcement as some families were leaving, but for the first time in hours, that chaos was organized. And before long, things started to feel much more peaceful.
Some of my friends started arriving. One couple who live along the Highwood River I knew would have lost everything, seemed very upbeat, but also fully resigned. Some students of mine who live in Blackie were there for emotional support for others they knew. Popular personalities in the town started arriving, like Annie Froese and her husband Herb, devastated by their loss, yet showing resigned optimism. Lawyer George Dearing arrived, only a few months after his major surgery, seemingly optimistic as well. Faces I knew from around town, relieved and exhausted, all giving me smiles showing happiness at their safe arrival. Everyone hiding their grief at their losses. More importantly, everyone having a shared sense of loss, and the beginnings of a tighter community could be seen already. People were friendly, supportive, and genuinely concerned and considerate of each other. The true character of High River showed in their strength, calm, and upbeat supportive sharing of each other's experiences, grief, and hope.
The M.D. of Foothills sent in a truck with three firefighters on it. They performed first aid as they could. Before long, an ambulance with two very stoic-faced EMTs arrived, as they were called out to help with three people who were in medical distress. Meanwhile, the busses started flowing in. I would get on the bus to tell everyone before they got off where to go and what to expect. I also later discovered that was more meaningful than ever.
I saw Mayor Emile Blokland briefly in the Blackie school, and he disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. He was in shock. That was the last I heard or saw of him.
People started getting reunited after as many as 12 hours away from their family members. One 4-year-old girl got into the doorway of the bus she came in on, and all I heard was "Daddy!" A burly man about my height pushed through the crowd, and within 3 seconds he had his daughter and his wife in his arms. I bit my lip.
One strange observation I noted as one load of people were arriving at the registration table was affluence. The most affluent were coming in alongside those who came from the co-op housing.
A father of one of my students was waiting impatiently for his family. When I saw them on a bus I was talking to, I looked out the window of the bus and gave him a thumbs up. The relief on his son's face was incredible. The family of six grabbed each other, and the father's forced smile turned genuine.
Off one bus comes Sue Mustard. In tears. In utter shock. Water was half-way up her garage door. In Montrose. Where water has never been before. She was not permitted to take her dog with her. For interest's sake, two days later, her dog was found, and they will miss their family pet immensely. This is the first inclination I got of the magnitude of this flood.
An elderly gentleman asked after every bus if another was coming, looking very anxiously for his wife. After hearing that there were some elderly folk who were stranded in High River, I was not surprised.
A mother was waiting for her daughter, another one of my students. When the daughter arrived, she wailed openly. It occurred to me that if I was 13 years old, I'd likely do the same.
Another of my students arrived on the next bus, another 13-year-old girl. I was the first recognizable face she'd seen since the school was evacuated. It was not a traditional reuniting, but for her, it may as well have been.
All the while, Kevin Newman and I stayed helping people off the busses. If ever there was a man I'd want to be working with in a crisis, it was him.
Somewhere along the way the Hutterite Colony who had produced a large quantity of food in their corporate kitchen arrived. They were sent to the Community Centre to deliver food there.
And that is what we did for the next 5 hours; receive people off the bus, help get them registered, fed, watered, dry and as comfortable as possible. There was still no communication into Blackie save for one phone at a house across the street from the school, which was commandeered as a headquarters. At midnight, the Salvation Army food truck was gone, off to prepare for serving breakfast the next morning. They left behind two Salvation Army officers, including a very personable Black Beret named Chekotah, who I spent much of those 5 hours nearby.
At about midnight, I was finally able to get enough service on my cell phone that I could text my father. I had to decide if I would stay or if I would go. After having popped about 9 tylenol tablets throughout the day, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep the migraine away anymore, so I asked Shelley, who was still going strong, if they were well-stocked with volunteers. They were, so I texted him asking him to take the 90-minute drive down south to get me. I continued as I had for the next 2 hours, except the busses stopped arriving, and so I spent time checking in on people to see how they were doing.
One gentleman I checked in on stopped me long enough to tell me that he suffered from depression, and that he didn't think that he would have been able to survive this event, because he is normally alone. He said that when another volunteer and I brought him a bottle of water and a hot dog, he knew he was not alone, and that he'd be able to make it. To all those volunteers who felt like they weren't doing enough, this man made me realize that even those little things can save a life.
Cots had not yet arrived. People were sleeping on gymnastics mats, strangely arranged chairs, or the hardwood floor of the gym. Many couldn't sleep. Nonetheless, the older people, toddlers, teenagers and middle-aged people all sleeping finally helped me find peace. Their peace was simple; they were alive, they were dry, and they were being cared for.
The Red Cross truck arrived at 1:45 AM, now Friday morning. People were slightly frustrated because they wanted to sleep on the cots, but they couldn't be opened up yet until we knew where all the cots and bedding were going. Once finally opened, we started unloading some, and that's when my wife and father arrived. Knowing now that cots were here, that everyone was safe and had some guarantee of comfort, I left.
It's seldom that I regret a decision to go with my family, but it's a purveying feeling I still have as I type this. I knew my wife and children were safe. Why did I go to them when so many still could have used help in Blackie, High River, or anywhere else? It's a conundrum I may end up living with for a while yet. Nonetheless, when I woke up the next morning and heard that Calgary had been hit hard as well, I went to my two boys, and gripped them and my wife in a sob. I'm not sure why I cried. I know I was glad they were safe. I also know I was mad that I wasn't doing more. How dare I sleep in a warm dry bed with a mattress and pillow?
I know the answer, although I'm not sure I believe it yet. It is so I can be that fresh face with help once I get back. I have word that my house is in decent condition; some sewage backup in the basement, but once that is managed, I can open up my house to fellow High Riverites who need a place to sleep while they recover. That is what my house will be, a refuge for those who need it. And I will be able to provide it because I will be rested. That's my job now.
To all those who helped out in those early hours, I admire your courage and resolve. To all those who were received by the evacuation centres, the worst is gone, and the best is yet to come. To all those first responders, and those volunteers already in the rescue effort, you helped us to firm ground when there was none, your heroism is commendable. For all those who want to volunteer, your time to do so is yet to come, and although High River can't accept your help yet, we will need you in the weeks, maybe months to come.
To all those I met on that incredible day of tragic community, thank you for blessing me with your strength and resolve. This weekend we defined High River for what it really is; the best community in Alberta. And that has nothing to do with the buildings or the river, and everything to do with the people.