Alberta river forecasters have more alarms, are better prepared for flooding

EDMONTON - Alberta's river forecasters say more alarms and improved communication means they're better prepared to handle a massive flood like the one that devastated the southern part of the province last spring.

An alarm system that tracks river levels now also monitors about 40 rain gauges in flood-prone areas.

If there is intense rain, the alarm will ring the phones of river flow forecasters such as Colleen Walford with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development in Edmonton. She can give a warning to environment staff and municipalities.

She told reporters Tuesday that her phone's always with her. When she's sleeping, it's next to her pillow.

"I'm really positive of what's going to come this year ... because we're ready," she said.

"The rain has the potential to come all the time, so you just have to be prepared for it."

Last June, devastating floods hit Calgary and southern Alberta, displacing about 100,000 people and destroying or damaging more than 14,000 homes.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada ranked the floods as the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. The province earlier estimated the total flood damage to be around $5 billion.

Walford said improved communication between forecasting staff, Environment Canada and municipalities means everyone will be better able to handle a flood emergency.

Any sign of fast and heavy rain means she'll be making calls sooner to emergency managers in communities like High River and Canmore, she said.

"They might not be able to do anything because nobody's going to start sandbagging when a (weather) system's off the coast of Alaska. But at least they know, and they know what the risk is, and that it's there."

An emergency advisory was recently issued in the province due to increasing spring runoff.

The affected areas include parts of central and southern Alberta, such as Calgary and Red Deer, as well as north to Peace River and Fort McMurray, although water levels are not expected to significantly rise in major rivers, such as the Elbow or Bow, which flooded last year.

Evan Friesenhan, head of the river forecasting office in Edmonton, said melting snow is always a concern. But rain is the biggest indicator of flooding.

He said the province is creating a free mobile app that will give people updated information on river levels. It's not available yet, he said, but should be ready by June.