John Gardner helped clean up New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He was there to fix up New York after Hurricane Sandy. And now, Mr. Gardner and the Canadian company he works for is patching up High River after the Highwood River tore through this southern Alberta town.
"There's certainly the same amount of intensity and damage, if not more, compared to Katrina," said Mr. Gardner, CDT International's general manager. "One of the worst I've seen."
Katrina, a Category 3 storm by the time it hit landfall, took a wide swipe at the Gulf Coast, making the storm's scale much larger than the flood in this town and its surrounding communities. But unlike in the 2005 hurricane, the damage in High River, save for the lack of deaths, is more concentrated and consuming, Mr. Gardner said. The waters swept into High River 17 days ago.
Shoppers Drug Mart's corporate office enlisted CDT's help about an hour after the floods hit southern Alberta, Mr. Gardner said. In High River's Shoppers, puffs of mould that look like white cotton candy are growing in aisle 8 near the coffee containers, pancake batter and flour. Delissio Rising Crust pizzas – spicy chicken deluxe, pepperoni, deluxe and Hawaiian – are almost busting through their boxes because the freezers have been off for over two weeks and humidity has jumped in the store.
A sweet, musty rot hangs thick near the perishable goods, and the scent from decomposing food punishes all stomachs within five metres. The aisle is stocked with milk, yogurt, margarine, orange juice, eggs, cheese, luncheon meats, hot dogs and other foods that quickly spoil. Soggy bags of Purina Kitten Chow in aisle 9 add to the stench. A slick of slippery mud coats the entire floor, and ruined merchandise – much of it unidentifiable because the products are slathered in toxic mud – is shoved into piles long and high near the front of the store.
Workers squeegee and haul mud and mucky merchandise out of the store. Even the goods on the top shelves will likely be tossed because the packaging has been affected after sitting in the muggy store. Six blue dehydration units are drying out the store: First CDT's equipment will blow hot air into the building, then they will be flipped into reverse to suck it out.
The cleanup specialists have about 30 jobs on the go in High River alone, and sent 45 project managers to oversee its operations in southern Alberta. CDT, which is also in charge of fixing up the Shoppers in Calgary, has since hired about 130 temporary workers to push around the muddy slop containing feces, pathogens and other hidden dangers.
Businesses without the backing of big corporations will have to make do with whatever help they can muster. Neil Jowsey, the Shoppers' franchise owner in High River, says he would have been lost without professional help.
"I wouldn't have known what to do," he said, noting that although the flood spared his house, he couldn't go home. "You're evacuated. You don't have the contacts. I didn't even have a cellphone for a couple of days. You're just totally not prepared for this."
High River declared a state of emergency on June 20 and slapped a mandatory evacuation order on the town. Approximately 13,000 people live here, and about 4,000 homes have been processed for re-entry. Police checkpoints guard other neighbourhoods, barring residents from inspecting homes deemed too unsafe for entry.
Two High River communities, Hampton Hills and Wallaceville, fall into this category. Officials are forced to travel in a grey Polar Kraft boat in Hampton Hills, a newer community on the outskirts of town. A few centimetres of a vehicle's red roof peaks out from the water. The phone number on a developer's billboard – it advertises homes in the "low 280's" – is obscured because the water is too high. In Wallaceville, a short drive from the Shoppers, piles of rocks look like small glacial moraines and boats swept away from nearby Marcraft Marine are scattered throughout the neighbourhood.
Even in accessible zones – still dangerous neighbourhoods where residents had to sign waivers before being allowed into their houses – homes will have to be demolished. Many residents are welcomed by garage doors a few feet off the ground, ripped open by the force of the water, and the contents strewn about their properties.
In the safer parts of town, High River residents – alongside volunteers who have been flocking to High River to help – are tearing apart homes, dragging out insulation, drywall, furniture and other innards, creating mounds of garbage that now seem commonplace in southern Alberta. More than 900 volunteers have registered to help; many are relying on shuttle buses run by the Alberta government to get from Calgary to High River, which sits about 65 kilometres south of Alberta's largest city.
Their arrival is welcome relief to the many business and homeowners who will have to clean up without help from professionals like CDT, the Ontario-based company that started as a carpet-cleaning business in 1978 and now specializes in disaster recovery.
Mr. Gardner said that while catastrophes often look the same – ruined houses, battered businesses – the High River jobs come with extra weight.
"This is our home country," he said. "We're hometown guys. We're a Canadian company. That means a lot to us."