High River: the good and the frustrating

New flood statistics recently provided by the Alberta government make it clear how much hard work has gone into rebuilding and recovery over the past year, but also how much work remains — particularly in flood prevention and planned flood mitigation projects.

More than 100,000 Albertans in 30 communities were affected by the June 20, 2013 flood, with the province providing over $191 million in disaster assistance so far. Nearly all provincial roads, health care services and schools have been reopened; damaged recreation trails and campgrounds are slated for attention next. Homeowners living in the floodway have until August 30, 2014 to decide whether they want to sell and relocate or stay and risk losing Disaster Recovery funds in the event of a future flood.

Last year Christian Courier interviewed Rev. Paul Droogers, pastor at High River Christian Reformed Church, in connection with the flooding (“Highs and lows in High River, Alberta,” July 22, 2013). We contacted him for an update, and he graciously agreed to share some reflections on the anniversary of this record-breaking Canadian disaster.

How is High River CRC doing now in comparison to a year ago?
Life and ministry at the High River CRC reflect the average High River resident's experience: there are both good and frustrating moments. We have all experienced moments of uncertainty, disappointment and exhaustion. We’ve been without regular programs since the flood. We’ve had to fire the original contractors in the church basement due to poor workmanship. Many church members are still desperately trying to make sense of their own recovery needs. On the other hand, regular community dinners hosted at the church, the continual presence of World Renew volunteers, and stories of businesses opening and residents [able to return] home all serve to give hope. Our church family has been reminded of how vulnerable we are, how much we wrestle with earthly treasures, and how deeply we are affected by devastating events. Then again, we've been surprised at the Lord's goodness, the generosity of brothers and sisters in Christ, and the outreach opportunities simply placed at our feet. 

As a congregation, we are finding out that recovery is a long and complex process. We've learned there's quite a difference between physical recovery and emotional or psychological recovery. Continually, members are finding answers to their challenges. For some this means needing to leave homes that are now considered part of the floodway. Grieving the loss of our “pre-flood way of life” is ongoing and different for every person affected. We are thankful for the members not affected by flooding who have stepped up and tried to help out. Especially there has been a need to allow people the necessary space to process the crisis. On the whole, we are more attuned to others and the question “How are you doing?” is meant more sincerely. As additional affected members make the transition into the “post-flood way of life,” as we look forward to our basement being ready for occupancy in the fall, and as regular activities once again resume, the High River CRC will be in a much better place to live within community and fellowship.

What is your assessment of recovery in the broader High River community?
Almost every resident or business in High River has a unique recovery story. Some were not affected at all physically but still feel guilt about having been spared. Others were affected, but, through insurance and disaster recovery program pay-outs, are getting along or even financially ahead. Still others are fighting legal battles with the provincial government because they want to be bought out so they can leave town without losing everything. Some say High River is recovering quite well — World Renew, along with other NGOs, believes the work will run out before their committed deadline of December 2015. Others estimate it will take up to 10 years to achieve full recovery. A recent business report estimates that in two years 75 percent of businesses, either once in High River or still trying to come back today, will have gone bankrupt. However, property values in town seem stable and those that come up for sale on the market are usually sold in less than a week. The town is recovering, but in its recovery it is also transitioning or transforming. New residents are coming in and changing the culture of High River. Many larger businesses, such as banks, are seeing whole staff turnovers. Adding to all the change is the need for much of the infrastructure to be replaced. A four-year downtown revitalization plan has recently been approved by Town Council. Alberta Health Services has dedicated much funding in the areas of counseling and suicide prevention and that certainly is a need for many residents. At a recent High River Renew Committee meeting, the Town of High River acknowledged it has no idea, really, how many people are actually still not in their homes or have moved away. A survey currently being conducted by Samaritan's Purse hopes to publish its findings on similar questions next month. Overall, High River can often still feel like a mysterious place to live. No activities downtown, many homes currently demolished and people still living in temporary camps means there is much less hustle and bustle than there once was. 

A year in, what has the impact of the disaster been on your family?
The flood has left us with two main impacts. Like many High River residents, we too continue to experience exhaustion and days of low motivation. Hearing story after story of loss and living in a town that is dusty and really messy can be discouraging. It is hard to say how long that will last; some experts claim it will be part of our experience as long as either we, as a family, or the town as a community, is in the re-building phase. The second impact it has left us with is a completely different perspective of what's important. Things can either be replaced or missed. People and relationships, however, give daily hope and strength. As a family, we are thankful to God for sparing us, providing for us and giving us the opportunity to get to know our neighbours better and regularly take time out for them. Since the High River CRC is preparing to host a one-time only SERVE project July 12-19, building relationships with our neighbours and community has taken on a whole new meaning and sense of urgency. A daily awareness of dependence on God is also joined by a prayer of thanksgiving for others who have stepped up. Having been part of this experience means we now have credibility to speak about an event like this; it also means we are able to relate better and understand why people act or react the way they do. 


  • Cathy Smith

    Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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