PINCHER CREEK, Alta. – “May I help you?” were the first words the farmer heard when he walked into the Pincher Creek disaster services office.
“I don’t know,” he replied as he pulled a wrinkled list from his jacket pocket. He was one of 300 people coming to that office to take inventory of his life’s work after it was washed away when the Oldman River spilled its banks.
The southwestern corner of Alberta was the hardest hit by floods earlier this month. Damages for the entire southern region from Pincher Creek to Medicine Hat are estimated to be $100 million, say government officials with disaster services.
For Martha Paridaen, the losses she and her two children suffered are almost beyond comprehension. She’s lived for two years on a quarter section of land near Cowley, upriver from Pincher Creek.
She knew the river was rising at midnight of June 6 and that afternoon at 3 p.m. she decided to move to higher ground.
As the river roared, heavy rains added to the already swollen stream.
“I was terrified,” she said.
That night she and her two children, aged 18 months and three, slept in their truck on a hill. The next morning she surveyed the damage.
“I went over the hill to look and it was all gone,” Paridaen said while waiting at the flood services office in Pincher Creek.
Before the flood, the Oldman River was a shallow, narrow trickle about 18 metres away from her property. Now she estimates the river is about a kilometre wide and extremely deep. Rocks, trees and at least 30 centimetres of silt have been left where her farm sheds once stood.
Her garden of potatoes, strawberries and dried flowers is gone. On top of that, the river changed its course and swallowed up some of her farm, as well as the neighbor’s pasture. They don’t know how they will recover the land.
Floodwaters picked up the temporary house she was living in while waiting for a new home to be finished on a hill. The house was dragged at least 10 metres and stopped at a 45 degree angle in a grove of cottonwoods.
Only personal possessions left
When she and her children were forced to flee the farm, the bridge and road were washed out so they had to walk. All she could carry was a backpack and a few personal possessions.
“I’m just walking in a circle. I don’t know where to start,” she said, visibly struggling to hold back her tears while showing a handful of pictures that coldly detail the wreck that was once her farm.
Paridaen is living in a tent on the farm and her children are staying with relatives. Clean up is almost impossible because all her tools, sheds and machinery were swept away. She has little cash.
As she left the office, a worker holding a bucket of candy stopped her and asked if her children had any toys.
No. No toys, no nothing.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” said the worker. “But please, take these suckers for your babies. I’d feel better if you did.”