What began as a gentle shower quickly upgraded to a torrential downpour. The impending disaster gave Latter-day Saints and their neighbors a chance to work together throughout June and into the early days of July to harness the forces of nature. Hundreds of hours of volunteer work demonstrated that the spirit of service provides an opportunity to turn disaster and labor into love.
The storm on June 6 deposited 8-12 inches of rain in the snow-laden mountains of southern Alberta. The ensuing deluge downstream from Canada's Rocky Mountains was unforeseeable, unprecedented and catastrophic. In the next 24 hours, rivers rapidly swelled to overflow banks as residents of many communities scrambled to limit property loss. Hundreds were forced to abandon belongings and evacuate homes.Many members of the Church live in the areas affected. In Medicine Hat, a city of 44,000 people in southeastern Alberta, there was a particular need for help as many housing districts are located close to the river. LDS members assisted each other and their neighbors, as there was an immediate demand for sandbags and evacuation services.
"We were asked to go assist a member of the Church," said Pat Boehme, a Relief Society member in the Medicine Hat 2nd Ward. "After we helped there, our kids and many others from the ward started helping the member's neighbor fill sandbags." Sister Boehme said the job took only half an hour, but would have taken the family most of the evening. From there, many Church members continued moving down the street, offering assistance to whomever needed it.
Jim Werner felt the impact the members were having on the community. "One lady said she was grateful the Church came and helped them out. She was very aware of the presence of the Church," Brother Werner said. "At one home we had about 20 people there to help, including many young men. I felt for those people; they really needed help."
Mike Little, a 17-year-old priest in the Medicine Hat 2nd Ward, got into the spirit of service when he and his fellow students went to attend their high school band practice and their teacher didn't show up.
"We knew our band teacher lived in the area by the river," Mike said. "When he didn't show up for practice we went down to his house to help him out." The teacher was more than happy to see them. "Both members and non-members worked together to help him move two loads of furniture out of his house," Mike said.
Jean Skinner, a parent of one of the students, noted that the band teacher's wife "was just about ready to throw in the towel" when all of her husband's students arrived. "They really appreciated the help those students provided," Sister Skinner said.
After the water receded, even more work was required. Wet, heavy and sewage-contaminated sand bags needed to be removed, and houses had to be cleaned and disinfected. Young Men Pres. Richard Skinner immediately offered the services of the young men to the city organization team. The young men could not be used on an official basis because of their age, but Brother Skinner was told that there was a great need for volunteers in the weeks to come. Soon, Brother Skinner was organizing teams of priesthood and Relief Society members to be on call to assist those in the community who needed help.
In the Fort Macleod area of southern Alberta, dramatic rescue efforts prevented loss of human life as raging floodwaters engulfed houses and denied residents and others access to roads.
Reports abounded of helicopters and watercraft being employed to pluck stranded residents from rooftops, windows, vehicles, trees and remaining patches of high ground. But while human life was thus preserved, calculations of damage to homes, highways, bridges, crops and livestock will take weeks or months to finalize. Present estimates of the disaster's property toll exceed $100 million.
While insurance claims and government assistance may combine to partially offset losses, many are resigned to undertake rebuilding at personal expense.
Counted among Fort Macleod's flood victims were numerous LDS families, members of the Fort Macleod Alberta Stake, whose homes and farms in river valleys sustained varying degrees of damage.
Recently released stake Pres. Heber Beazer resides in an expansive hand-constructed log home secluded by trees on the bank of the Oldman River near Fort Macleod. For many years he and his family had enjoyed a peaceful co-existence with the normally passive waterway. Unprepared for the river's sudden and violent mood swing, the Beazers could only watch in amazement from upstairs windows as water reached the four-foot mark of the home's main level. The family was eventually rescued by members of the local Fish and Game Association using an 18-foot motorized boat.
During the flood and its aftermath, hundreds of people sacrificed personal and business pursuits in order to serve those suffering around them.
It was the worst of circumstances inspiring the best in people, leaving meaningful memories to linger long after the pain of material loss subsides.