100 year flood...Say What!?

2014
Woodley, Kristine

The floods of 2013 brought about many emotions for all of those affected.  As a second year family medicine resident, thrilled to be saying ‘its my last day of residency’, I thought my little taste of a flood in high river was just another great story to add to the many I have had.  And then the waters kept rising.

It’s still a great story, although a different one than I would have expected to tell.  June 20 was an exciting day. The completion of ten years of medical training that provided me the opportunity to meet countless interesting people, gain amazing skills and travel across Canada. On to the rest of my life!

Unfortunately, June 20 2013 also became a day of shock, change and at times fear.  When the water began rising in high river Alberta in the early morning hours I had no idea that my last day of residency would no longer be remembered as such, but instead as the day that Southern Alberta faced off with mother nature.I remember the night before it rained, a lot.  Not more than I have seen but it was still a good amount.  I had never been in or seen a flood nor had I lived in southern Alberta long enough to be wary of the month of June and the heavy downpours that could come.

I spent the early morning oblivious to the rising waters.

As the water rose around the clinic I was working at, we took pictures and I was once again told “It isn’t called High River for nothing!”  When we finally decided it was time to shut down shop, I headed towards the hospital to work in the Low Risk Maternity Clinic.  As I turned into downtown, I drove into a wall of water.  I managed to turn around and slowly began realizing this was more that we were expecting.  I tried calling both the clinic, and my fiancé, who was asleep in our apartment across the street form the hospital.  Phones were down.  I watched in naïve awe as people were attempting to drive out of the downtown area.   It was chaotic.

I am not sure that it was the right thing to do, but I parked my graduation gift (my new Subaru) on some dry land, assuming again, the water would never get too it.  I hid my ipad under the front seat (seemed a safe place from thief’s…) and I threw on my rubber boots (yes they were in my back seat).  I walked /jogged/sloshed through the water towards the hospital and my apartment.  I stopped a few times and just looked around, dumbfounded by what I was seeing.  I realized later, that I hadn’t seen anything yet.

In the next 15 minutes I made it home, asked my fiancé to get out belongings out of the basement, grabbed a pair of running shoes and hitched a ride in the box of a pickup to the hospital across the river I used to call a street. 

Now don’t assume my fiancé was a fan of me leaving him there.  He was not impressed. He has as much experience as I do with floods.  None.  Unfortunately by the time I realized how bad things were getting there was no crossing that river to get back to him.  I am lucky he is an amazing man who respects my uncontrollable urge to rush into the chaos rather than run from it.  I am eternally grateful that he still by my side today. When crisis strikes many people run towards safety, which sounds like the reasonable thing to do.  As physicians and many other health care professionals, we tend to run head first into it. 

I spent the next few hours’ sand bagging and helping triage the patients that were in hospital.  There were moments of frustration as we watched the waters racing past; venting that there seemed to be no help getting to us.  The helicopters were flying overhead, many of us assuming that they were news stations recording the madness we were living, angering us.  Then we saw a person dangling from one of the ropes below the helicopter.  That’s when it really hit home …this was bad, and it wasn’t just a small part of town that had become a raging river. 

There were also moments of panic and anxiety.  Communication was coming in to us that a storm surge was potentially on its way bringing another 3-5 feet of water.  My fiancé was across the street and I knew he didn’t have 5 feet to stay dry.  Our phones were down, I didn’t know if he was still ok and my mind began playing tricks on me.  I began to really worry, to the point of being minimally functional.  I am so thankful for a nurse, a friend who helped me take a few breaths and focus.  The unknown combined with a fierce desire to keep your loved ones safe, can have an amazing emotional impact on you.  I have never quite experienced that level of anxiety before, and I certainly hope I don’t have too very often in the future.  Many people experienced those same feelings that day, as they couldn’t find their children, spouses and parents.

Despite all of this, there were some amazing and encouraging moments that day.  Everyone worked together to keep the High River hospital, literally above water.  Although we couldn’t keep the water from entering the hospital main level, we were able to work in teams to keep the water out of the generator room.  That was a success as it meant we could keep things running.  I don’t think the maintenance staff that was on hand that day slept a wink during our stranding.  They were true heroes that day. 

The medical aspect of that day was remarkable.  Triaging the hospital patients to determine who would be evacuated first if and when the time came. Taking part in a helicopter transfer for two maternity patients who were in labor and seeing them off safely with stars to fully equipped hospitals, which in the midst of the floods, we most definitely were not.  Being flown back to High River Hospital by the military in a Griffin helicopter because that is where we were most useful.  We had the opportunity to use their night vision goggles to see the town under water, as a Hercules plane circled above us dropping flares to light the way back.  Getting to the fire hall, as some of the water receded, only to assist nurses and medics resuscitate a man in his 70’s who was poorly responsive and hypothermic after being found in the freezing water.  I remember pausing for a brief second before blurting out, "I'm a physician, can I help?"  You have these epic moments in medicine, and that was one of them.    

Now High River is a town of resilient people.  They have seen floods before, and they will again in the future.  However, This flood was definitely different.  The speed at which the rivers rose, the speed at which the rivers flowed down the streets was shocking.  No one had a chance to think twice, and if you did, you got caught in the current. We watched police boats drive up the streets only to flip against the current.  We saw cars float down the streets, rather than drive.  We watched rescuers in front loaders and combines go window to window to evacuate people. 

By 3 am on Saturday June 22nd,  the High River hospital evacuation was complete.

In the days and months to come, the town and its community members slowly began rebuilding their homes and places of work.

The medical community of High River was severely affected.  Multiple offices were destroyed and some will not be rebuilt.  We have worked together to support each other and to provide workspace so that patients could continue to be seen.  The hospital opened its doors to the local specialists so that they could resume seeing patients as soon as was possible.  Surgery and obstetrical services resumed within two and a half months.  We have increased mental health services in place because we know the worst, emotionally, is yet to come.  Our hospital staff was placed all over southern Alberta, which often stressed an already tense family dynamic and day-to-day life. 

It is more than the rural small town medicine that pulls me back to High River time after time.  It is the people, this community that is so resilient and stands by each other that keeps me coming back.  It wont be the same, many people will be gone but those that have stayed behind will support each other.  Patients have been sharing stories about the generosity of strangers, neighbors and love ones.  It reminds me that despite the horrors that the floods of 2013 brought, we truly live in a beautiful world. 

Theme: Community | Communauté
Theme: Health Care Delivery | Prestation des soins de santé
Theme: History | Histoire
Theme: Teaching and Learning | Enseignement et apprentissage

Stories in Family Medicine | Récits en médecine familiale [Internet] Mississauga ON: College of Family Physicians of Canada. 2008 --.

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