Calgary turns a corner in flood fight

While Calgary turned a corner in its flood fight and residents trickled back home, thousands more rushed for higher ground as a surge of high water bore down on communities further to the east.

Large parts of Alberta's largest city remained swamped Saturday. But the sun was out for much of the day, rivers were receding and at least some evacuees were being allowed to return to their neighbourhoods.

On Saturday afternoon, scores of people were out walking Discovery Ridge, a newer subdivision in Calgary's southwest near the Elbow River which had been evacuated. Many children were milling about on bikes and scooters.

Dave Cardinal, whose house is on a quiet cul de sac, said he and his neighbours were in good shape.

"For the most part, the water hasn't quite reached our levels here, near our house," he said.

"But down the boulevard here, there's been likely maybe about 40 or 50 houses that have been flooded."

Further down the road and across a soccer field, residents of a condo complex were not as well off. The Elbow, normally not even visible from that wooded location, was pooling around a few of the buildings and had completely deluged and underground parking garage.

Winter tires, coolers and other debris could be seen floating in a scummy pool, spilling out of the garage's entrance.

Caryl Horn lives in one the buildings and was assessing the damage.

"There's no elevators, there's no power and I'm sure it's the same with the other buildings, too," she said.

"If you've got a flashlight, you can go in and collect your things and clean out fridges."

The flood has hit some of the city's iconic structures hard. The Calgary Flames announced that everything below the eighth row of the 19,000-seat Saddledome was ruined when the rink filled with water. Dressing rooms, hockey equipment, scoreboard equipment — "it's a total loss," said team president Ken King.

The Calgary Stampede grounds were a muddy lake. But Mayor Naheed Nenshi has said the city will do everything it can to make sure the world-renowned Stampede goes ahead as scheduled in two weeks.

"Folks, we've turned a corner," Nenshi proclaimed. "However, the No. 1 thing that I need to share with all of you is that we're still in a state of emergency. It's sunny out, it's nice out, but we are still in a state of emergency."

An estimated 75,000 people have been forced from their homes in more than two dozen neighbourhoods along the Bow and Elbow Rivers in the city. Areas that didn't see any flooding were slowly being reopend as the utilities were being turned back on. While water quality was still good, Calgarians were asked to conserve while bathing and showering, or even brushing their teeth.

Flood officials were warning that nothing would happen quickly in Calgary and they were urging displaced people to stay away from their neighbourhoods until the city said it was safe. Parts of the downtown were opened Saturday evening but officials said it would probably be midweek before access is fully restored. People were urged to stay away from work Monday.

The federal Conservatives were to hold their convention in the city next weekend, but announced Saturday that it would be postponed to a later date.

Flows on the smaller Elbow River were expected to decrease by 60 per cent over the next 48 hours. Flows on the larger Bow were forecast to go down by 25 per cent over the same period.

While the news was promising in Calgary, communities downstream were bracing for their own crisis.

Water levels were rising on the South Saskatchewan River in Medicine Hat and 10,000 people were told to leave their homes Saturday morning. Gas was turned off in those areas Saturday afternoon and the city worked to fortify power plants and other utilities.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said the city was planning for the worst, with the crest of the river not expected until Monday morning.

"We don't want to anticipate the worst but we want to be prepared for the worst," she said. "That's certainly the approach that we've taken. We know from what we've seen everywhere else that this is more exceptional than we've ever seen in Alberta before, so we're presuming that's probably the circumstance that we're looking at there as well."

In Saskatchewan, efforts are underway to move more than 2,000 people from their homes in a flood-prone part of the province's northeast.

Emergency officials are moving people out of the village of Cumberland House and the Cumberland House Cree Nation, and are warning that people could be out for a couple of weeks. The communities are downstream of where the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers meet and those rivers are swollen as floodwaters from Alberta flow east.

One of the hardest hit communities in Alberta, High River, was still swamped on Saturday despite water levels receding somewhat.

It was on lockdown Saturday, it's 13,000 residents kept out. Only emergency personnel were allowed in and about 390 soldiers were joining Mounties in a door-to-door search of residences.

"That is mainly for security purposes. We have to ensure that people's properties are safe because they had to leave in a hurry," said town spokeswoman Joan Botkin. "We need to know that their property and the property of business owners are safe."

Botkin said she realizes it's frustrating for people.

"Residents can't get into town and they're worried, they're anxious, many people are worried about their pets right now."

On Friday, Mounties confirmed three bodies had been found in the Highwood River near High River. The bodies of a man and a woman were recovered that day.

The third body, a woman, was located Friday but couldn't be recovered and was pulled from the water Saturday near Turner Valley. It was believed to be the body of a woman who disappeared after her mobile home was swept away on Thursday.

RCMP said they've received reports of a fourth body being swept down the river, but police have not been able to confirm that.

The mountain town of Canmore was one of the first communities to get hit with the flooding on Thursday. The normally dry Cougar Creek bed turned into a rushing torrent, tearing away entire backyards and the decks of homes.

Residents were allowed to return to 260 evacuated homes Saturday, but RCMP said 40 homes were unsafe.

John Marriott, whose house backs on to Cougar Creek, didn't know for days whether it was even still standing. On Saturday he surveyed the damage.

His backyard, which used to be nine metres by six metres is gone and the creek bank is now up against the foundations of his house.

"It's still a lot better than watching it flow away in the creek, which I thought it was going to be," said the wildlife photographer. "I don't want to relocate but I guess you do what you have to do.

"It's just a house."

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