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HIGH RIVER, Alta. - An angry crowd of evacuees gathered at a roadblock outside the town hardest hit by the Alberta floods as officials announced that their return home was still days away.
The mayor of High River had earlier suggested that a timeline for people to go back was close. Instead, on Wednesday, he pleaded for a little more patience from those who have been without a home for a week.
"The biggest question I hear from residents is when and that's been the most difficult question for us on ground zero here," said Mayor Emile Blokland. "We're now able to get a little closer to that answer. We're talking days. We're not talking weeks."
The crowd of about 50 wasn't allowed to watch Blokland speak to reporters, but was eager to share opinions afterward.
"I'd like to know who's making these decisions," said former town councillor Floyd Langenhoff.
"I'd like to see the disaster people here and talk to us. Where are they? Hiding behind the mayor and the rest of the council and letting them take the flak?
"As soon as these areas dried up we should have been there remediating our houses," he said. "Now, after a week, who knows what's going to happen?"
Rick Fraser, the Alberta government member appointed to oversee the town's recovery, said a return date was still being worked on.
Crews were still working, he said, to restore basic services and utilities, to rid the community of contaminated standing water and to make things safe.
"I want the residents of High River to know that officials are working with the RCMP and other disaster-response agencies to eliminate these hazards and restore basic essential services so that we can place residents back in their community as soon as possible."
Fraser said the re-entry, when it comes, will be staged.
The Alberta town of Slave Lake took a similar approach when a wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in 2011. People were allowed to return in three groups — first were essential workers such as hospital, utilities and municipal staff; then staff from businesses such as banks and grocery stores and finally other town residents.
But Cam Crawford, president of the High River Residents Association, said a staged re-entry could have already started.
"We still don't have a logical explanation of why it is we're not being allowed back into homes," he said.
"We're advocating that, notwithstanding the difficult situation, it's still possible to get into homes on a work crew basis. We're not asking to sleep in our bed, we just want to get in and begin to deal with damage."
Junior federal finance minister Ted Menzies, who represents High River in Parliament, said he understands how anxious people are to get back in their homes.
"But it's dangerous," he said. "There was one family that went back, turned the power on and burned their house down."
Premier Alison Redford chimed in Wednesday, relaying a story she said she'd been told by Andre Courbould, who is running the province's integrated task force on rebuilding.
"He was telling me that when he was in Winnipeg after the Red River floods, people were pushing to get into their homes, so they sent in a man who was a soldier whose job was to do the original assessment. He went in in a Zodiac, he touched the water, he electrocuted himself, and he lost his arm," said Redford.
"Those first steps into a community are really important in terms of the safety of the people that are going into those communities."
Fraser said that pre-loaded debit cards to help evacuees with expenses would go to High River residents first, starting Thursday.
Redford announced the cards earlier in the week as part of an initial $1 billion to kick-start recovery. Adults who have had to leave their homes for seven days or more are to get $1,250 each and children are eligible for $500.
About 300 people who have defied a mandatory evacuation order and stayed in High River will not be eligible for the cards, Fraser said.
"These people will need to leave High River to become eligible."
First Nations evacuees and temporary foreign workers will also be eligible for the money.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation called on Premier Alison Redford to recall the legislature and pass an emergency budget that accounts for the spending.
"This budget should re-allocate existing dollars from program and capital spending into a dedicated fund for flood relief," the group said in a news release Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a number of federal ministers toured the area Wednesday and reiterated promises of support from Ottawa.
Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney said businesses will have a few months longer to file their tax returns, temporary workers will be able to retain their status until paperwork is sorted out and anyone affected by the flood who has been out of work for five days will be eligible for employment insurance.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Ottawa and the provinces will continue to talk about ways to prepare for natural disasters and mitigate their damage.
"Instead of repairing the same flood damage year after year after year, put some kind of mitigation — whether it's dikes or dams or whatever — put that in place so we can save that type of money," he said.
Menzies said the flood will hurt the Canadian economy overall, but help is coming to Albertans nonetheless.
"It's going to be a challenge, but as we have said, we'll be there shoulder to shoulder with the province to make sure that whatever eligible expenses are there, whatever the costs are, whether it's infrastructure of whether it's uninsured homes, we will be there to support Canadians."
In Calgary, authorities had sad news.
Police confirmed Wednesday that an 83-year-old woman who died while that city was flooding last week drowned in her ground-floor apartment.
Deputy police chief Roger Chaffin said the woman's suite was partially below-grade, making it easier for the water to pour in.
"I couldn't even speculate as to how she became overcome by the water, just to say that the victim was overcome by water and drowned," he said.
Chaffin said police were at the woman's door last Thursday night to tell her about a mandatory evacuation and she said she would be leaving. He said the woman didn't have mobility issues and there were no indications that she needed help.
Her body was found Sunday by friend who went to check on her. Earlier reports suggested the woman stayed because she didn't want to leave her cat.
To the west of the city, the Trans-Canada Highway was reopened to public traffic Wednesday afternoon for the first time since flooding forced its closure last Thursday.
Alberta Transportation said one lane in each direction was open on the four-lane highway and speed limits have been reduced to 60 kilometres an hour.
Campers making plans for the upcoming long weekend were being warned to stay out of backcountry spots damaged by flooding.
"It's important for people to check and make sure that the campgrounds that they intend to go to are still open," advised Dave Galea of Alberta Emergency Management.
"Many have been closed as a result of the flooding situation."
Galea urged people to heed posted closures.
"People should obey the closing signs. When a park is closed, it's closed for reasons of safety."
He pointed out that in Kananaskis Country, a popular recreational area west of Calgary, more than 1,200 campers had to be moved after flooding began last week.
He also issued a stern warning to boaters tempted by flood-swollen rivers.
"They put their lives at risk for the thrill of being on fast water," he said. "It puts the first responders at risk who are going to have to rescue them when things go bad.
"The first responders are busy enough dealing with the aftermath of the flooding and shouldn't have to worry about stupidity."
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