Baptist Church volunteers help with High River cleanup

Twenty-six parishioners from Ponoka Baptist Church and three friends from elsewhere travelled by Parson’s Tour Bus to High River

Submitted by Bernice Edwards

Twenty-six parishioners from Ponoka Baptist Church and three friends from elsewhere travelled by Parson’s Tour Bus to High River as volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse.

This organization does tremendous relief work wherever there is significant disaster, such as the horrific flooding that happened in High River in June.

On July 15, we left Ponoka shortly after 6 a.m. and returned later in the evening. There were heavy overcast clouds and some fog. The coolness this provided all morning was good, better than too hot.

We first went to a staging area for Samaritan’s Purse about 10 kilometres north of High River where we were oriented concerning the work we would do. We were given orange Samarian’s Purse T-shirts to put on, then we were supplied with waterproof, white coveralls, protective goggles, rubber gloves and masks. Everyone brought their own rubber boots.

We got back on our bus and were escorted to a newer housing area that had just been opened that morning for volunteers to enter. What an experience we were about to encounter.

Our bus parked on the property of a closed veterinarian clinic and we walked a short distance to our work area.

What we first saw were front yards where the grass was totally dead and covered with what looked like chopped, muddy straw. Young, recently planted trees were ruined from the ground up to about a metre and appeared to be alive above this.

The sidewalk and streets were already cleaned of debris and washed.

We saw well-protected workers literally washing the street just past the entrance to this area, as everything would have been covered in debris. Already in the area we walked into there were mounting piles of ruined belongings of every description on the streets.

A backhoe and dump trucks would then haul this devastation away. I wonder where they possibly could be taking what would be mountains of rubbish.

Located in rows, on several streets, were fridges and freezers that had been duct-taped shut. Rotten food would be sealed inside of them. There were some washers and driers also with these.

The high water marks were visible on the houses, indicating the size of the “lake” with rushed in and covered most of this large and beautiful town.

Our larger group was divided into three smaller ones and each was assigned to a house with a group leader. Our group went into a two-storey house where it was evident the water had been as high as a metre or a bit better.

It had been as much as three to four inches high on the main floor, meaning the basement had been submerged. The basement had been finished and well lived in. Our job would be to totally empty it.

The basement window facing the street was totally gone. I’m told the force of the water blew out the basement windows. This was evident in every house we saw.

Every item in the basement was to come out that window except for a fridge and two freezers.

The stronger members of our crew went into the basement along with our group leader, who I later realized was the homeowner. He truly was a “brick.”

Four of us were on the outside taking everything handed to us out the window to a nearby pile just off the sidewalk onto the street. Everything was soaked or covered with watery mud. This included furniture, clothing, electronics, toys, many photo albums, books, pictures, and massive amounts of crumbling wallboard. We worked steadily for three hours in the morning.

Soon after we started work an inflated, orange and somewhat muddy balloon was tossed out. A mild breeze bounced it around. How was it possible for this balloon to still be inflated? It was not inflated to full capacity, which helped. I finally picked it up and placed it in the branches of a small, bushy tree nearby. I don’t know why but I wanted to further protect it.

After we’d been working for about an hour and a half a red truck drove up and parked. A lady got out; I soon learned she was the lady of the house. She had brought bottled water in a cooler in the back of her truck. It was appreciated. We used some of the water to wash the mud off our gloves, then hands, as well as drank it.

I had an opportunity to talk with her a while as we stood at the back of her truck in the middle of the street. I was sort of facing the mounting pile of rubble from her basement when I realized that directly behind this pile I could see the top of the tree where I had put the orange balloon.

It struck me as being a symbol of amazing fragile survival in the midst of, terribly powerful devastation. A visual gift from God? I pointed out the balloon to this dear lady and said this inflated balloon had come from her basement. Because it had survived unbroken I felt it deserved a place of honour and safekeeping. She broke out into hearty laughter. We hugged each other.

By noon we were told to walk back to the bus to be transported across town to where we would be served lunch. Everyone’s white coveralls were now grey with mud, especially those who had been down in the dungeon-like basements. What a sight we were. We took off these dirty coveralls, gloves and masks before entering the bus. As we did we emerged out of the mud with bright orange Samaritan’s Purse T-shirts. What a visible transformation.

The area we went to for lunch was closer to the now calm Highwood River. The ground there was different. It was covered everywhere (except the street that had been cleaned) with a thick layer of now dried mud. I have no idea how that could be cleaned up. Maybe over time rain will do it.

Lunch was served outdoors. We were at the street level of a once green park, where an overhead canopy had been set up to shelter rows of tables and chairs. Volunteers from various parts of town came here.

It was quite cool out (we were glad it wasn’t hot) but before long the heavy overcast began to break up some and sunshine appeared, bringing more of a breeze.

When we returned to our place of work we were given clean coveralls, gloves and masks if needed.

I was with a smaller group now and in a smaller house. That water had come into the main level only enough to soak the carpeting. None of the drywall seemed affected. The furniture had already been moved to the garage in the back yard and the rugs had been taken out. There was linoleum that had to be painstakingly chipped out.

This nice bungalow was owned by a single man and sadly he had no insurance, as we were told by an agent with Samaritan’s Purse. They wanted to do all they could for him through volunteers. His basement appeared not to be developed so his loss would not be as great as the first house we were in. they did not have insurance on their contents.

Our group of 29 worked in five or six houses. There has to be between 50 to 60 houses in this area alone, which is a small part of the total picture of destruction in this town. Nonetheless we had helped a few people and we were glad we had. We were repeatedly thanked for what we did.

Much has been cleaned up in this town with more still to do. Then comes the rebuilding.

Many more volunteers are needed, and for a long time to come. I personally encourage others who are able bodied to consider giving your time and strength to contribute as a volunteer to the people of High River. Some of us, one day, may need the helping hands of others.