Propellus Volunteer Story: High River Flood

It’s 8:00am, I am on the c-train and wearing my favourite outfit – Cute flowy blue skirt, the black top that I got for free and fits me perfectly (for some reason the lack of cost makes the shirt even better) and black ballet flats. I just made the train, slid through the closing doors and even found a seat, the day was off to a great start.

Before I made it to the next stop I remembered something, a bunch us from work were volunteering at High River, which made my cute outfit and ballet flats ridiculous.

Fast forward an hour and I am in the Propellus office wearing jeans, a Wild Rose T-Shirt, and much more appropriate footwear; though not the rubber boots I was told to bring. You’d be hard pressed to find rubber boots in this city, or its surrounding areas, I don’t mind the lack of rubber foot apparel. The lack of boots just means that there are hundreds of people out there just like the Propellus staff, buying rubber boots before the pilgrimage to High River. But this is not their story, it is ours.

Aside from proper footgear, one thing that potential High River volunteers need to consider is how to get to the town, by shuttle bus or by car. The Propellus volunteers had decided on carpooling; a valid option, made even better when at least one of the occupants of the cars have any sense of direction.

We had also considered our safety very carefully and ordered: face-masks, white suits that are vaguely reminiscent of bio-hazard suits, and rubber gloves.

After a few wrong turns despite roadside signage, the two-car caravan safely made it to High River. We miraculously missed the gophers popping out of their holes like whack-a-moles as we pulled into the rodeo grounds that had transformed into a makeshift volunteer staging area.

Words like disaster and catastrophe were splashed across the signage littering the fields. It was somewhat surreal, from the vantage point of the rodeo grounds High River looked untouched, perfectly fine, nothing like the site of a recent natural disaster.

Part of our group registered us to volunteer and got our assignment while the other half sifted through the field – an entire FIELD – full of donated clean up goods. Upon being told that we would be cleaning glass out of residents houses we settled on 8 industrial brooms, some buckets, gloves and other random goods which were shoved unceremoniously into the cars before we caravanned to the house.

Did I mention that it helps to have a sense of direction? In a disaster zone the GPS is even less trustworthy than usual. It sent us down a dirt road that was likely a flattened berm which was ensconced by road closed signs. Granted, we went down this closed road, because hey, The GPS told us to. We were those people.

It was driving to the house where we were registered to help that you started getting an idea of how hard High River was hit by the flood. As we passed the train tracks the full force of the furious water that had crashed through the town a week earlier was evident.

The tracks were gnarled by the water, pushed up in some places, pulled down in others, the once straight line was peppered with meter wide gaps of daylight where the ground below it had been eroded.

The occupants of our trusty white vehicle rolled down the windows and were taking pictures of the destruction. We turned off the main roads into the residential areas, blue, purple and yellow signs were in the windows: Gas On, Power On, Fridge, Phone Needed. That was when our group realized that unlike most of their counterparts in Calgary, many of the residents of High River were still without amenities like power and gas.

As we drove closer to our destination the signs felt more urgent as they called out to passers-by: GAS NEEDED, POWER NEEDED, PHONE NEEDED, NO FRIDGE – our hearts sank a little bit more.

We got to our designated destination on 2 ave., not far from the Hampton Hills community that was one of the hardest hit areas. There were already volunteers out in the front lawn in their white hazard suits and their masks, working up a sweat raking glass out of the front lawn. We weren’t needed here. After some humming and hawing we decided to head back to the Salvation Army lot we passed where the donated items were being sorted and handed out.

We asked directions and tried to retrace our steps using directions rather than GPS and immediately found ourselves lost. It is truly astounding how in a town as small as High River we could get lost so many times. It could have something to do with the amount of times we drove in a circle. We kept saying, oh, there are people in white hazard suits and face masks, let’s ask them. But in a place that has an almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, the people in hazard suits and dust masks are too many to count, and few of them were from town, no one really knew where anything was.

As we drove up and down grey streets of debris – a virtual ghost town, we had a front row view of the devastated businesses in High River, most of them looking like mom and pop shops. We could only imagine how helpless they must feel, their businesses virtually unsalvageable unlike several of the neighbouring chain stores.

We made it to the Salvation Army, where a man in a neon safety vest quickly put us to work sorting donations. I will admit, this was not the volunteer project I had in my mind when I agreed to go to High River to volunteer. It was not the caked in mud from head to toe work that I have seen on numerous Facebook and Twitter photos you share with your grand kids in 50 years. But we quickly saw the need for this work.

Some of us were sorting pillows and blankets, ripping open the heavy duty black plastic bags like kids on Christmas, folding and neatly putting them into a pile – until that pile became a blanket fort so big, so grand, that you couldn’t have even fathomed it as a child.

Some of us were sorting towels and toiletries. The towels were never ending, just when you think you’d opened the last plastic bag, and put away the last towel BAM! There was someone bringing at least 10 more. The shelves were nearly full of folded towels when the families started coming in. We were cheerfully (albeit chaotically) helping people, grabbing empty laundry baskets to fill with necessities like towels, toothbrushes and diapers.

It wasn’t until the day of sorting was halfway through when we all kind of realized something. Almost all of these people had the same, somewhat haunted, somewhat detached look in their eyes. One lady was talking about living out of a trailer with a hollow, far away sound in her voice. Like they were having to detach themselves emotionally from the experience. These people were just like us, we could have been them, we could be living out of trailers and wondering how we were going to keep going through the end of the week.

While we were debating whether there was more work for us, the voice of the man in the neon orange vest rang out, “Volunteers! Volunteers, please come over here.” All of a sudden there were multiple men in neon safety vests. As we gathered around these vested men, they started off by saying that a situation had arisen, and that in a few minutes a whole group of families were about to be told that they would have to vacate their houses immediately and wouldn’t be allowed to go back. They would be given very little time to take anything from their houses – they were being told their homes were unsalvageable.

It was that realization that brought me crashing to the reality of the situation that surrounded us, all the air left my body. I looked to the other Propellus volunteers, who were all obviously registering this in their own way, but most of us had tears in our eyes.

We all knew that at that moment in time – while we were standing there listening to instructions for filling bins of clothes – others in this community were having their worst fears realized.

The mood of the volunteers had gotten somewhat somber. We were sweaty and hot, yes sure, but mostly we were trying to process what these people had been through, and were about to go through.

It was as though the task of picking out clothes from these people became the single most important thing that any of us could do at that very moment in time. We made our way to the trailers housing the donated clothing and picked through it, trying to be selective, trying to find these people the best of the clothing, as though that might somehow soothe their souls. It seemed very odd to picking out clothes for someone you didn’t know, out of all styles of clothing. Do they need only tank tops and hoodies? Or dress pants and nice shirts?

We filled up the 24 rubbermaid containers and snapped the lids on, hoping our prayers would get sealed in with the clothes and would bring comfort to whomever opened it. We decided we could do no more and made our way back to the waiting cars.

The drive home was much quieter than the one on the way there. Mainly talking quietly about the devastation that we saw, or introspectively staring out of the window.

I left the office, and walked back to the C-Train, in my ripped jeans, hair and skin covered in a thin sheen of dust and sweat. My ride home I felt much more introspective than I did in the morning.

As I got off the train and walked to my car, the rain turned from a sprinkle to a torrential downpour, my only thoughts were of those families leaving their houses and all their belongings in the rain.

I wondered if they had managed to get all the donations loaded into the waiting trucks before the rain had hit and I wondered how many more families will find themselves opening Rubbermaid containers and sorting through donations in an effort to recreate the home they once had in a sleepy little community like High River.

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