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'Whatever it takes:' Redford announces $1B for 1st phase of Alberta flood relief

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The Alberta government made the first billion-dollar ante Monday in a flood recovery effort that by all accounts will carry a staggering final tab.

As thousands heaved soggy furniture, muddy carpets and mushy drywall into Dumpsters and thousands more waited in shelters for the all clear to return home, the province approved an initial $1 billion to kick-start flood recovery.

"We are going to do — please listen to my words — whatever it takes to get everyone back to a place where they can continue to live their lives," Premier Alison Redford said.

The money will be used to support people who have been forced from their homes, as well as to run relief centres and to start rebuilding infrastructure.

The government will provide pre-loaded debit cards to displaced residents to help with their immediate housing needs and day-to-day purchases. Those who qualify will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per child.

Redford beat back fiscal critics before they had a chance to strike, saying the provincial budget will not be balanced next year as planned.

"It is going to affect the budget and I will say right now, because someone is going to ask the question, 'Are we sticking to the plan to balance the budget?' No, we're not," she said.

"The world changed (last) Thursday morning and I think as a Treasury Board we've come to terms with that. We think Albertans have come to terms with that."

Torrential rain last week filled up creeks and rivers that were unable to contain so much water in such a short time and surged over their banks to inundate communities throughout much of southern Alberta.

Redford said the rebuilding could take 10 years.

"I don't want to scare people. But when we talk about what's going to happen, we're talking about a 10-year plan. And we're committed to make sure we're going to take the time to do that right," she said.

Redford's announcement came at the same time Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said almost all of the 75,000 city citizens who had to flee high water from the Bow and Elbow rivers last week could go back.

The hum of gas-powered pumps filled the streets as homeowners removed water from basements filled to the floor joists. Giant garbage bins placed in neighbourhoods quickly filled up. The city waived fees to enter the landfill.

Damage estimates so far have only been speculative.

A preliminary report from BMO analyst Tom MacKinnon said it could be in the realm of $3 billion to $5 billion.

MacKinnon said he arrived at that figure by multiplying $500 million by 10, after reading ATB Financial economist Todd Hirsch's comments that the price tag could be 10 times higher than that of the flood that occurred in the area in 2005.

Hirsch cautioned that his estimate was not a scientific one and was based solely on how much larger this flood was.

Nenshi wasn't guessing.

"My best estimate on the total damage hasn't changed," said Nenshi. "It's lots and lots and lots."

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, whose home is in Calgary, wouldn't guess either.

"We're still in a state of emergency in 23 communities," he said. "Our focus is not the calculation of formulas and hypothetical figures. That will become clear in due course."

Nenshi welcomed the provincial money.

"It's a wonderful start," he said. "We appreciate it and I could speculate, but I suspect that number will have to go higher."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt issued a statement Monday saying the government would support First Nations affected by the flooding.

He said his department is in top with aboriginal leaders to ensure that the communities' immediate health and safety needs are being met.

While Calgary recovered, only a small number of 10,000 evacuees in Medicine Hat were allowed back, even though the South Saskatchewan River crested Monday morning.

Officials say the rest won't be allowed back until their homes are inspected, and if they are flooded, it will be even longer.

Water that had submerged streets and surrounded homes and businesses was slowly receding. But Ron Robinson, director of emergency measures, warned that protective barriers continued to be "bombarded" by the high and fast-moving river.

"The structural integrity of our berms is at issue and we require vigilant monitoring," he said. "This is why there is an urgent need for people to be safe."

About 1,000 homes were hit by high water. About 1,500 people were registered at the city's emergency centre and accommodation had been provided for about 600.

Mayor Norm Boucher said it would be at least several days before the city would be "more mobile."

"It's still not safe for people to return home. The water has moved down but it hasn't moved down a lot," Boucher said. "There's still debris coming out. We have some dams that are starting to leak a little bit."

Sand-bagging efforts continued as a result, he said.

"I know (people) want to go back ... but the reality is they won't have electricity. They won't have gas in the house. They can't run pumps if they have water in the basement."

Among the sites left waterlogged was the Medalta Potteries National Historic Site.

Spokesman Barry Finkelman checked out the damage from an escarpment.

"It looks like we may have missed the bullet ... we probably have about two or three inches of water, maybe six inches of water in the building ... but until we get into the site we don't know," he said.

"We were anticipating anywhere up to six feet of water in the building. We had raised as many of the artifacts as possible up off the ground."

Medicine Hat officials have said this flood appears to be worse than the "flood of the century" in 1995. Finkelman said it's the fourth flood in the area in 20 years.

"We seem to be doing the same protection year after year, so maybe it's time for us to look seriously at flood-proofing the city," he said.

The deluge, while serious, was not as bad as had originally been feared after the devastation in Calgary and other communities upstream. Water managed to top sandbag barriers in some areas of the city and there was flooding in some neighbourhoods, but other defences remained dry.

People in High River, the community hardest hit by the flooding, didn't have much reason for optimism. There was still no timeline for when 13,000 evacuees would be able to return.

Police said one drunken man brandished a knife did try to get past officers at a High River security checkpoint.

RCMP said the 24-year-old man demanded that he be allowed to return to his property. He was arrested and charges were pending.

Pictures of the natural disaster have flashed around the world. On Monday, Prince William and his wife Kate wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pass along their sympathies.

William and Kate provided a much-needed morale boost in 2011 when they visited the northern Alberta community of Slave Lake shortly after it was ravaged by wildfires. It was an unscheduled stop for the then-newlyweds who were on their first visit as a couple to Canada.

"Catherine and I have been saddened to learn of the deaths and destruction caused by the unprecedented flooding throughout the province of Alberta," said the note released by Harper's office.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/130624/waiting-the-water-medicine-hat-bracing-rivers-crest-flooded-