Mayor goes with the flow

Former Stettler resident weighs his future as head of flood-struck High River

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After one term as High River’s mayor, Emile Blokland had planned to run for the job again this fall.

At least that was the plan until Mother Nature rained on his parade.

Since late June, the former Stettler businessman and town councillor has been immersed in the greatest flood in High River’s history.

On the frontlines of the flood devastation and the efforts to rebuild the town, Blokland has been both heralded and vilified for his part in the recovery.

Such is the life of a politician.

The upheaval has at least made Blokland, 60, reconsider another bid for the mayor’s chair in the October municipal election.

“That’s a tough question,” he said in a July interview when asked whether he intends to seek re-election.

“I had signalled intention early in the spring that I would run for another term, but this past month has been extremely draining for me personally and mentally.

“I’m going to be working hard these next two to three months, before the term is finished, and I think I’ll re-assess my energy level towards the end of August, and make a follow-up statement on that.”

Either way, Blokland’s life has been forever impacted — likewise for 13,000 residents of High River, and those people in other southern Alberta communities whose properties were destroyed in the June 20 flood strike.

Historically, “High River has had many floods,” said Blokland, who was elected to High River town council in 2007 and became the mayor in 2010.

“We’re very good at dealing with floods in High River. We’re very experienced. Water comes, water goes, we clean up afterwards and life goes on. We never ask for help and we take care of things. (But) this one was totally different. It stopped being a flood about three hours into the event and became a disaster.”

On a personal level, Blokland was awakened early on the day the raging floodwaters arrived and broke the banks of the Highwood River. And he’s relived the nightmare many times since then.

“I was awakened at about six (o’clock) in the morning and made my way to the town office right away with the rest of council,” he said. “At 7:04, we declared a local state of emergency, and reports starting coming in from all over about the amount of water that was coming our way. The provincial monitoring stations that are in place to help communities like High River to know what’s coming at us were all blown out, so we got no information from them.

“At nine o’clock in the morning, the water breached the riverbanks, which is right next to the downtown area, and water started trickling into the downtown area.

“At 9:30, a half hour later, that water was three-to-four-feet high. And we had to evacuate our emergency operation centre downtown and get everybody else out of downtown, all at the same time.”

Within minutes, Blokland found himself in the middle of the mayhem, as residents tried to find safe transportation to a rescue centre.

“My personal vehicle, which is a three quarter-ton truck, was filled with people in the back end,” he said.

“I had five people crammed into the passenger seats and the seat behind me, including an 89-year-old gentleman who I basically had to lift into my truck.

“We had to wind our way out of the downtown community without flooding our engine and getting stalled. Many other vehicles were in my way. I could hardly negotiate my way (through the streets).

“This all happened in half an hour. Fortunately, I was able to get out and get to higher ground, and get those people to safety. But that was indicative of what was happening a lot of the time.

“The rest of that morning, we had combines, front-end loaders, rock trucks, everything, going into the deeper water, picking people up and getting them out of the downtown and southwest areas of our community, particularly, and getting them to safety.”

That was just the beginning of the rescue operation, which turned into a town-wide evacuation as vehicles were buried in water and homes and businesses suffered extensive damage.

“As the day went on, we continued to issue mandatory evacuation orders to get people out of town, because it was way more serious than anything we had ever seen before,” Blokland recalled.

“The entire community of 13,000 residents was evacuated, save for — you heard the reports — a couple of hundred people that stayed behind.”

Three people from the High River area died in the flood strife, while thousands of people had to wait at least 10 days to return to their homes.

The massive cleanup and rebuild continues as the province, the town and residents grapple with the aftermath and the future.

“I think people, no matter where they live, are resilient by nature,” Blokland said during a Stettler visit that gave him a brief break from the flood fight.

“Overall, I think the spirit is good. I know that with all of us, myself included, you know your feelings go up and down in a curve. One day, you wake up energized and you go at it. And maybe towards the end of the day, depression will set in. As we see each home getting rebuilt, each business getting back open, bit by bit, inch by inch, the feeling of empowerment for citizens returns.

“There’s no doubt you will lose some residents that have had enough, don’t want to go through this again, and we’re probably going to lose a few businesses that were unable to start up quickly enough again because of financial difficulties or whatever. Hopefully, it’s very few. I’d be naïve to think that we aren’t going to lose some, but hopefully it’s very few. Hopefully, we’ll be able to recover the population base, the business base, as quickly as possible.”

The mayor’s own house was among those damaged in the flooding, but he had bigger issues on his mind when disaster struck that unforgettable Thursday, June 20.

“(My home) was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “It might sound funny or whatever, but the only thing that was on my mind was the town.

“It’s a strange feeling. June 20 is a day I’ll never forget. For the next eight days, nine days, before we starting letting people back in the community, every day I would drive through the community and we’d be making these slow progresses. But every morning I’d wake up, it felt like Groundhog Day — that movie with Bill Murray. Every morning I’d wake up, the nightmare was still there.

“I lived that June 20 every day, day over, for 10 days. As a mayor, I felt really relieved and it really made me feel better, the day we finally allowed the first residents back into the northwest (district). Approximately a third of our community lives in the northwest.

“We had a welcome centre at the rodeo grounds, and I was there from the very beginning to the very end that day, welcoming all the residents back. They didn’t know what type of situation they were going to face, but the residents, too, were happy they were able to get back to their home and begin (the recovery).”

The devastation in High River and Calgary occurred just a couple of weeks before a train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Que., caused an explosion that killed 47 people.

“My heart goes out to those folks,” Blokland said.

“They not only lost their downtown, they lost (47) citizens. We lost three citizens in our floods — one in High River and two just outside High River.

“It could have been a lot of worse. We very quickly had RCMP on the ground, we had the military move in within a few days, and we did a house-to-house search to make sure we didn’t miss anybody — and we didn’t. Of course, some doors had to be busted to do that. So be it. Nobody else lost their life. We can fix a door. You can’t bring a life back.”

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