As Sara and Nate Searle rolled into High River, Alta. just after 2:30 a.m. Monday, they first noticed the railroad tracks, twisted like a strand of DNA. They saw boats overturned, covered in muck, lying haphazardly along the streets as if left by a child in a sandbox. Entire streets were laid to waste, homes gutted.
Weary from driving a packed 16-foot cube van on a 13-hour drive that stretched across three mountain passes, the Maple Ridge couple was as informed as possible about the plight of the residents of the flood-ravaged community. Television reports, newspapers, and social media provided them a glimpse of the devastation to the community of more than 12,000.
Still, as Sara and Nate approached their destination – a makeshift camp set up to collect donated goods to assist those in the community while cleanup continues – they were overwhelmed with the scope of the destruction.
As the sun rose, they toured the area, dropping off supplies. It occurred to Nate, what was once a vibrant community “looked like a war zone.
“You drive around town and you see all these homes and they have signs posted on them that say ‘water on, gas on, volunteers needed, fridge removal,’ because everything that they need is written out because there are no phone lines. It’s their only means of communication.
“It was street after street after street where people had pulled everything out of their basement. They had gutted everything right down to the studs. It’s just mountains of garbage, insulation, toys, drywall and muck piled in front of every home.”
In High River, they call the muck ‘toxic sludge’ – fecal matter and mud.
Sara became ill shortly after arriving as the air quality, due to the sludge, overwhelmed her.
“It’s everywhere. You walk down the streets and it ends up on your shoes. It’s slippery, you fall,” said Nate.
“There was so much devastation.”
While the state of emergency put in place by the Alberta government expires at midnight Friday, the road to recovery for the people of High River is nowhere near the end.
Sara and Nate were prompted to volunteer because they had friends there who were forced from their home. Chris and Jessica Giesbrecht pulled up stakes and sought the safety of high ground as the flood waters swallowed the town whole.
But Sara and Nate didn’t have much time. Between raising two young children and getting their home ready for Nate’s parents to move in, the couple had a limited window. They felt if they gathered donations and tried to ship them, there was no way to know where and when they would arrive.
So they decided they would take anything they collected and deliver it themselves.
Thursday, July 4, they hit the phones, put out a call on Facebook, and spread the word through their church.
Quickly donations started rolling in.
On Friday, $800 in cash was stretched when Home Hardware sold everything to the couple at cost.
As donations poured in, totals quickly rose.
As Sunday rolled around, it was evident they were going to be taking more than a van’s worth of goods.
The couple estimate they had more than $10,000 in donations as they left for High River. They said while families have lost much of their personal items, what they need most now is items that can be used to help clean up – coveralls, masks, and gloves.
Items like clothes and furniture will have to wait, they said.
While homes may be destroyed, Sara and Nate said the spirit of High River is far from broken.
“We were overwhelmed and they were overwhelmed by the fact that people from Maple Ridge had collaborated and brought this donation to them,” said Nate. “We got hugs and tears from people in High River that we’ll probably never see again. We feel blessed that we could make this kind of contribution.”
Sara and Nate may have been the people delivering the donations, but the thanks belongs to everyone who made the effort.
“It was such an amazing response in such a short period of time. It was incredible,” said Sara.
The couple hopes to organize more relief efforts for High River, possibly a mission through the Burnett Fellowship Baptist Church.
Nate uses the example of the clean-up efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where the initial response was overwhelming, but unfortunately pushed aside in the 24-hour news cycle.
“What, we’re eight, nine years past Katrina and people are still rebuilding,” said Nate. “It’s going to be the same thing in High River. The country is very quick to forget because it’s not at the top of the current news. But for these families who don’t have doors, they don’t have a basement, its not safe. They can’t go and pick up what they need because two out of the three grocery stores are closed. The whole place is crushed and that’s going to continue until they get it all cleaned up. We’re not talking weeks, we’re talking years.”