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Caution urged as High River residents return home

Shane Schreiber, a provincial incident commander, describes how residents of High River will be allowed back into their homes in stages at a news conference in High River, Alta., Friday, June 28, 2013.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The rush to get residents and business owners back into High River – a move prompted in part by angered evacuees – is putting volunteers and official personnel at additional risk, according to a senior official managing the crisis in this flooded town.

Shane Schreiber, director of High River's task force, said despite the extra layer of danger, there is a moral obligation to open neighbourhoods as quickly as possible. The government of Alberta will allow a second wave of residents and the first cluster of business owners back into town of 13,000 on Monday.

High River's mayor said the town will be rebuilt in the same place, although he conceded some areas may not be reconstructed after floodwater from the Highwood River ripped apart the town 12 days ago. Water remains over roughly one-quarter of High River, Mr. Schreiber said.

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"We've imposed risk on some of our volunteers and personnel to support this accelerated time frame [for re-entry], and that has meant they've worked longer hours than they probably should have," Mr. Schreiber said in High River on Sunday. "All of them want to – because they all want to see the residents come back in. But we are really pushing the envelope in terms of what we can achieve with the manpower and resources."

High River imposed a mandatory evacuation June 20, and residents started pushing back hard at the end of last week. Mr. Schreiber said this pressure played a role in the race to get folks back into town.

"It might be a little bit, but I think we feel compelled morally to get people back in their homes," he said. Some in the east part of town, however, will be displaced for weeks.

Flood waters from numerous rivers swept through southern Alberta last week, with damage and evacuations reaching from the Montana border to about 40 kilometres south of Edmonton. High River, which is now home to a pop-up lake still nine feet deep in spots, was the epicentre of the natural disaster, although homes in Calgary, Canmore and Siksika Nation were also severely hit. The floods washed away highways and bridges and reached at least the 10th row of Calgary's Saddledome.

In High River, a safety code officer fell through a subfloor Sunday. Because of these dangers, officials are "trusting" High River residents who are able to return home to "be grown-up and make prudent choices, smart choices, for their own safety," Mr. Schreiber said.

Business owners in part of the commercial district of High River, along with residents in five neighbourhoods, will be allowed to return Monday.

High River Mayor Emile Blokland is adamant his town, roughly 65 kilometres south of Calgary, will be rebuilt in the same place it sits now. "Absolutely it should be rebuilt," he said. "It should be rebuilt right here."

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The Highwood River killed three people in the High River area, and cleaning up and rebuilding will come with a massive price tag. Many homes will have to be demolished.

Some areas of town, Mr. Blokland allowed, may be off-limits. "There are definitely some areas [of the community] I think that we have to have a look at and see if it makes sense to rebuild in that particular area."

High River, he said, needs to work with the province to come up with infrastructure to keep the town safe. "Dredging, berming, diking," are among such projects, Mr. Blokland said. "The province and the town certainly need to get their heads wrapped around what type of mediation needs to be done to keep High River safe from future events."

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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

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