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'It's still not home:' residents of High River still out one year after flood

Fred Plotnikoff gestures in his trailer in High River, Alta., June 2, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

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Fred Plotnikoff gestures in his trailer in High River, Alta., June 2, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

HIGH RIVER, Alta. - Fred Plotnikoff and his girlfriend Bert Ager's home has been a tiny room in a trailer for the last 10 months.

The seniors have been living in the temporary community of Saddlebrook, just north of High River, which was set up by the Alberta government last summer to provide shelter for about 1,200 after the Highwood River poured into town and damaged many homes beyond repair.

Saddlebrook consists of a neighbourhood of long construction trailers grouped together on a 40-hectare site.

It has laundry facilities, a recreation centre and a kitchen that feeds the people who still call it home. A colourful playground still attracts a handful of children.

The makeshift community's population has dwindled to about 150 as the one-year anniversary of the flood approaches.

Plotnikoff and Ager are scheduled to move into a condo in High River on July 1.

"It was great to have a place to live that was dry. It's better than being under the damn bridge you know," says Plotnikoff, 70. "We're getting tired of it. We want to have our own place ... We've been OK, but it's not home."

"It kept us positive," adds Ager, who is 76. "We knew there was something better coming."

It's not just the residents of Saddlebrook who still aren't home after last June's flooding. A number of businesses in downtown High River remain dark.

The historic Wales Theatre, which first opened its doors in 1927, still hasn't reopened. It was only recently that "Hangover 3" was removed from the marquee — long past its movie house playing days. The movie was released on DVD last October.

"The water was right below the screen," says owner Syed Kidwai, pointing to the front of the theatre, which is in the middle of a major reconstruction. All the seats on the main floor have been removed. Rows upon rows of new seats are still covered in plastic.

"My wife and I had been considering retirement," Kidwai says. "It's been a very hard road. I must have aged five years in the past 12 months and we have to understand that it's not just myself — we are looking at the lives of about 12,000 people who were also affected."

Kidwai equates what he is going through to a cancer scare he had in 2008.

"First you are very upset and you say, 'Why me?' Then it's the four levels of acceptance. You get mad, then you accept it and say I'm better than a lot of other people."

High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass says getting people back into their homes and businesses has been the town's No. 1 priority.

But he says there's also a need to let residents know that there are protections in place to prevent a repeat of 2013.

Riverbanks have been improved to prevent erosion. The neighbourhood of Wallaceville, on a natural chokepoint in the Highwood, is to be bulldozed and the site returned to its original state. The river bottom has been scraped and an old rail bridge has been removed to improve flow.

In the longer term, there are plans for a channel to divert water around the community.

"I wouldn't call it doom and gloom but the town is wounded. People have that edge of nervousness to them," Snodgrass said.

"People have a very hard time getting it out of their head that last year isn't normal and last year isn't going to happen every time because it affected everybody on a personal level."

Snodgrass doesn't see High River returning to the way it was.

"This is an opportunity to take this town up about five levels," he says.

"You can see the light at the end of the odd tunnel here as to how this town's going to look and that's pretty exciting."

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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