The Background 

Alberta Floods 2013

In June 2013, the province of Alberta experienced extremely heavy rainfall that resulted in disastrous flooding. The flooding, mostly occurring in southern Alberta, was the worst flood in Alberta’s history. The water rose in the Bow, Little Bow, South Saskatchewan, Sheep, Elbow, Red Deer and Highwood Rivers, placing numerous communities under evacuation orders. 

Statistics from the 2013 Alberta Floods: 

  • 32 states of local emergency were declared
  • 28 emergency operations were deployed
  • 100,000 or more people were displaced
  • 4 people lost their lives due to the flooding
  • 2,200 troops from the Canadian Forces were deployed to assist local authorities
  • Total damage exceeded $5 billion
  • Insurable damages exceeded $1.7 billion 

High River Flood

In High River, Alberta, it rained more than 325 millimetres in less than 48 hours. That driving rain, combined with the heavy snowmelt in the nearby Rocky Mountains and the sharp watershed, resulted in the Highwood River rising to disastrous levels. The Highwood River reached flow rates of 734m3/s, which is ten times the average flow rate for June. 

As the river overflowed and flooded the town, it completely covered vehicles in the town’s main streets. The floodwaters came in so fast that 150 people had to be rescued from their rooftops. 

All 13,000 residents of High River were ordered to evacuate on June 20. Within days, the town was mostly abandoned. The flood caused catastrophic damage to the community. Three people died near High River as a result of the flooding Highwood River.

The entire community was displaced from their homes and had to wait many days before it was safe enough for residents to come back home. Community members needed access to information and resources. They needed an emergency communication hotline.

The Solution

The CommAlert Group was sought out by Tervita, an environmental solutions provider, to manage communication and provide information and resources to community members. They were there and operating a communications centre within 24 hours of receiving the call.

“We went into High River, accessed the situation and set up a crisis communications triage in the local high school shortly after the state of emergency was lifted,” said Tim Carwell, President of The CommAlert Group. “We provided a reliable way people could connect to the services required. At first, people were displaced and needed to know when they could come home. Then they needed help wading through the aftermath of this disaster.”

Community members could call the hotline to ask questions. For example, they could ask when garbage pick up would happen or if someone had been to their house to assess the damage. The CommAlert communications team would answer their questions, or if they didn’t have the answer, they would catalogue it until an answer could be found. Then the caller would receive a call-back with the information they requested. 

The crisis communications hotline was available to community members for 8 months after the flood occurred. The damage was widespread and safe remediation was taking longer than estimated. During that time, “the phone never stopped ringing”, commented Carwell. 

“We stayed until the community had all the information they needed to move forward and take the next steps themselves. We were there until the town started to come back to life,” said Carwell. 

The Results

The crisis communications triage and hotline kept the people of High River informed. Having strong communication and access to information and resources can make the difference between calm and chaotic. The CommAlert Group provided a reliable source of information and played a key role in helping the town get back on its feet. The residents of High River knew that they could count on them to find answers and follow up. 

“The community was grateful to have somebody to contact and someone who would contact them back,” shared Carwell. “They appreciated the professionalism and empathy. Sometimes we would just be there to listen to people as they talked through what they were going through, and that was just as important to us as providing information on services.”

The Future

A plan to mitigate future flooding in High River was announced by the Government of Alberta in November 2013. The mitigation plan included constructing a channel to divert water around the town of High River. 

The Beechwood Estates neighbourhood in High River was nearly wiped out completely. The Alberta government purchased over 90 homes from this neighbourhood. Most of them were demolished so the area could return to a natural floodplain. The rest were auctioned and relocated. 

The Town of High River purchased an Early Warning Mass Notification System from The CommAlert Group. This system will allow them to be better prepared for an emergency, improving communication between officials and community members.

“Every community needs to have planning and preparedness. We use an emergency notification system to warn community members of danger. That’s being prepared. How and when you use it is the planning piece,” said Carwell. 

“It challenges us when things happen but planning and preparedness can help keep people safe and get through a tough situation a little easier. That’s what CommAlert is here to do.”