When the floodwaters rose in High River, Alberta, inundating homes and sweeping away cars, leaving residents fleeing for higher ground or stranded on rooftops waiting for rescue, some would say that Stephanie Hansen was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But for the 20-year-old Abbotsford resident, it was right where she needed to be.
Hansen had lived in High River for eight months, leaving in February to return to Abbotsford. She arrived back in the community of 13,000 on June 19 to visit friends and spend a couple of weeks working at the Calgary Stampede.
She was staying with friends in High River when they heard the river was rising on June 20.
The announcement is common enough in a community that experiences significant flooding about once a decade. Residents were calm, preparing to pump water out of basements, taking the necessary precautions to cope with rising water.
But no one expected just how quickly the water would surge.
The streets of the town flooded, rushing through the downtown core, breaking the windows of businesses. Neighbourhoods that had never experienced flooding before now saw water three metres deep.
Hansen received a frantic call from a friend who couldn’t find her boyfriend. They raced to a sandbagging area to see if he was there. He was, but the relief was brief, as it became evident that the situation was dire. He was in a loader, driving into the waters to save people who were stranded.
People from across the community got into farming equipment and construction vehicles – anything that could get through the water to get people out.
Hansen rode in a rock truck, heading to a neighbourhood called the Hamptons. As the water rose, they approached homes, trying to get residents to leave. But some refused. In an area far from the river, many residents didn’t think they would be hit so hard.
The water was rising and Hansen was scared – the two rock trucks the group of rescuers were in became submerged. They started pulling people out in the loaders, and emergency services used airboats to enter the now lake-like area.
Though Hansen was frightened, she was able to think clearly. While the other rescuers – many of them High River residents – tried to save people while their own homes and families were potentially in danger, Hansen’s family and home were back in Abbotsford and she could focus on helping those in need.
The town issued a mandatory evacuation order, and after a day of rescues, Hansen left the town to stay with a friend. But her work didn’t stop. She offered her services as a volunteer, and went back June 21 to rescue more people, and by that Saturday was focused on saving animals that had been left behind.
With police and bylaw escort, Hansen went into homes to coax scared animals out. Cats were trapped in mud, wailing in fear. She spent 45 minutes coaxing a dog to come out from behind a toilet where it cowered, terrified and unwilling to leave.
She went to the nearby town of Blackie where evacuees were staying, delivering resources and finding familiar faces among the displaced. She ran into people she had known from her job in High River, now living in a recreation centre.
Hansen was supposed to return to Abbotsford before returning for her job at the Stampede, but she instead called her mother, explaining that she needed to stay and help the people who had been like her family when she had moved to a small town all alone.
Hansen did her best to help the community, even simply listening to the fears of residents. A man, kept from his home, only wanted to return to retrieve one possession – the ashes of his wife that he kept on the mantel. But with the dangers of the water, he had to stay put.
“A lot of people in this town have lost not just their house, but their homes, their memories, their animals.”
There are things Hansen saw that she will never be able to get out of her head – neighbourhoods submerged, cars overturned, railroad tracks ripped from the ground and standing vertically, a truck stuck on top of a fire hydrant, and worst of all, death.
Hansen said the horror of the people who were killed, and the animals that lost their lives will stay with her. They didn’t see it coming, no one was there to save them and they didn’t deserve to die.
At 20, her eyes have been opened to the fact that life is short and anything can happen. For now, Hansen wants to help High River, and hopes that others will support those affected by the floods.
Anyone wishing to donate can give to the Red Cross by calling 1-800-418-1111, or online at www.redcross.ca.