Stettler roots soothe High River mayor

When he needed a reprieve last month, the mayor of flood-ravaged High River headed to his former hometown, Stettler.

High River Mayor Emile Blokland is on the frontlines of the flood fight.

High River Mayor Emile Blokland is on the frontlines of the flood fight.

When he needed a reprieve last month, the mayor of flood-ravaged High River headed to his former hometown, Stettler.

Extreme flooding in southern Alberta in late June had washed out Blokland’s monthly visit to Stettler to see his 90-year-old father, Floris.

High River was at a standstill and the mayor was in the forefront as the town fought the worst flood in its history.

Virtually the entire town of 13,000 was evacuated and residents had to wait at least 10 days to return to their homes. In many respects, the massive cleanup has just begun, as High River homeowners and businesspeople try to rebuild a town that has had a long history of flood strife.

“I just admire all the residents of High River,” Blokland said during his mid-July visit to Stettler.

“They rolled up their sleeves and they got to work right away. It was an incredibly hard task for a lot of these folks, but we had an army of volunteers descend upon us — mostly from the Calgary area, but I know there’s people also from Stettler that were down there helping.

“To each and every one of them, no matter where they came from, a great big thank-you. We still need help. The help continues.”

Among the volunteers from Stettler were Blokland’s sister, Winnie Bissett, and her husband Ken, an electrician who remained in High River for a week helping homeowners.

“I know that there were other residents from Stettler that were down, as well,” Blokland said.

“Thanks to each and every one of them.”

During his Stettler stopover, Blokland attended a Domino benefit concert at West Stettler Park that raised $2,600 for the High River flood victims.

“This is my first day away from the town,” said Blokland, 60. “I have to confess that I really needed a day off to re-energize. I’ve obviously had some different pressures this month that I’ve done my best to deal with.

“I’m very proud to be the mayor of High River, and I’m very impressed by the citizens of how they’ve rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The vast majority understands what the situation is and are very understanding, and are there ready to do what it takes to put our community back together again.”

While fundraisers for Calgary’s flood-recovery efforts have garnered greater headlines across the province and throughout Canada, High River is also in dire need of assistance.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the simplest solution is to donate cash,” Blokland said. “We have well over 80 to 90 per cent of our community affected. The insurance companies are all over the board on their level of support. The province has a disaster-recovery program, which will add some assistance, but there’s going to be many residents that are still going to fall through the cracks, and have needs.

“There are two funds that are out there. The Red Cross has a southern Alberta relief fund, but that’s for all of southern Alberta. The Royal Bank of Canada has set up a specific fund for High River, and for all of the folks that are reading this message, that would be an area that I would encourage them to visit. You can do that through any Royal Bank branch, and I think you can also do it online.

“That would probably be the best way to support High River, as we move forward. We’re looking at a long rebuild. It’s not going to be three months or six months. We’re looking at five to six years and beyond, before we get the town of High River back to where it was, hopefully stronger and better than ever.”

Blokland was elected to High River’s council in 2007 and has been the mayor since 2010. He was a town councillor in Stettler for two terms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“I have very fond memories of Stettler,” he said in an Independent interview on main street. “Stettler is a community that I finished my schooling in. I also ran a business (Bloke’s Bakery) in Stettler for many years and was a member of the council here for six years.

“It’s a great community. It very much reminds me of High River, as well. High River is just a little bit bigger, but it still has that close-knit sense of community that’s so nice to be a part of. I like what I see. Stettler is really a beautiful town. It always has been a great town, but one of the things that has always impressed me about Stettler is its social well-being, particularly in the area of sporting things to keep youth active and the community active. I know I’m envious when I come here, because you have more ball diamonds than I have in High River, and yet I have over double the population.”

Blokland has run a dozen half-marathons, but no race could compare with the mental and physical rigours he faced after the banks of the Highwood River overflowed and High River declared a local state of emergency. Within hours, as residents scrambled for safety, his face was on the nightly news as authorities tried to ease the pain and regain a sense of order.

At the evacuation centres and news conferences, he ran into frustrated residents who wanted the permission to move back into their homes, or at least cross the police barriers to check the state of their residences.

“Anxiety, anger and frustration — all those emotions were out there,” Blokland said. “I think that for the majority of people, though, that felt those emotions, once they got into the community and saw what they were dealing with, they began to understand the magnitude of what we’re dealing with.

“We’re not dealing with a flood. We’re dealing with a disaster.”

Almost a month later, Blokland returned to Stettler to visit with family and try to regroup.

“It’s a refresher for me,” he said. “It’s a deliberate one I took. I try to visit my father once a month, and it fell right about the time the disaster happened in High River. And since June 20, I’ve basically been busy every single day, working long hours, trying to help with the emergency operations on the ground and also to communicate with the residents.

“At one time, I felt like I was the mayor of the largest city in Alberta, because our residents were scattered in a 100-mile circle. Your town is where your residents are — I had ’em all over the place. That was a challenge, to be able to get out there, because not everybody listens to the one TV station or the one radio station.”

Evacuation centres operated in Nanton, which is directly south of High River, Okotoks directly north, and in Blackie, which is about 15 miles east.

“Those three places had about 900 evacuees sleeping on cots in their arenas, etc.,” Blokland said. “I was making daily visits out to these evacuation centres to visit with people and give them updates about what was happening. But we have 13,000 residents, so that only covered 900. The rest of them were scattered, maybe living with family or friends, or maybe they had access to a trailer or a fifth-wheel that they were able to live in.

“That was one of the really hard challenges — to be able to communicate with everybody and let them know what was going on.”

Such challenges continue as the town, the province and residents try to expedite the recovery.

NEXT WEEK: High River Mayor Emile Blokland recounts the early hours of the disastrous flooding, and discusses his political future.