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Global grant rescues flooded town

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Loans help Alberta businesses recover from devastating flood


Officials had just issued a flood warning for the town of High River, Alberta, Canada, and Carney Zukowski-Young was at her business on First Street moving artwork to higher places. Nearby, her husband, Randy Young, searched for sandbags to stack in front of their interior design storefront, Aisling Interiors. Still, floodwaters had never reached their location, so they thought they would be OK.

“Our town is maybe 60 miles from the Rocky Mountains, which experienced really heavy rain over a 24-hour period,” says Bob MacDougall, 2016-17 secretary of the Rotary Club of High River. In the 30 years that he and his wife have lived in High River, he had watched the water rise every five years or so. But not like this day in June 2013.

The mountains upriver were washed with up to 13 inches of rain, which rushed down the Highwood River through the town. The same torrent inundated the Bow River, which runs through Calgary.

It was like someone opened a faucet to a tap. It was just insane how quickly it came.

Around 10 o’clock that morning, Zukowski-Young heard a shout from down the street. “They yelled, ‘It’s gone over the bridge!’ and it was like someone opened a faucet to a tap,” she says. “It was just insane how quickly it came.”

The rush of water knocked her to the floor of the shop. It carried away vehicles and devastated the downtown, soaking businesses with about 3 feet of water. Young says that at one point the water reached the “7” on the sign at the 7-Eleven store. As a police officer helped a woman and her child into the back of a dump truck, the officer’s car floated away, lights flashing and windshield wipers on.

The flooding, which killed four people and affected communities throughout southern Alberta including Calgary, became the second-costliest disaster in Canada’s history, reaching more than CA$6 billion in damage. The town of High River was particularly hard-hit.

“I would say 90 to 95 percent of the residences and businesses in the town [of 13,000] were affected by the flood,” MacDougall says.

Residents and business owners were forced to abandon their properties for up to 12 days. When they finally were allowed back in, it quickly became clear that the town would need an extraordinary effort to get back on its feet.

Roads were passable but lined with snowbank-size piles of mud and debris. The water had rushed through a feedlot before it hit town, carrying dead animals and waste, Young explains. Oil and gas from flooded cars further contaminated the water. About 8 inches of mud had coated Aisling Interiors, and large pieces of furniture had been shifted and pushed around the store.

Rotary Foundation provides needed help

Later, when the High River Rotary Club met with business leaders, they found out that little or no funding was available to them because the damage had been caused by a natural disaster. Mike French and Patrick Killoran, 2011-12 and 2013-14 governors, respectively, of District 5360 (parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan), approached the club about the possibility of a Rotary Foundation global grant to aid business recovery, MacDougall says.

  1. The floodwaters were contaminated with oil and gas, but also with E. coli, and a boil-water advisory remained in effect for a month.

  2. The flooding in High River was so severe that over 150 people had to be rescued from their roofs. 

  3. Aisling Interiors was reborn as A River Ran Through It Café.

“We knew they were going to need help, because not only had people lost their homes, the schools were gone. Their businesses were gone,” says Donna Schmidt, 2013-14 governor of District 6400 (parts of Ontario, Canada, and Michigan, USA) and a member of the Rotary Club of Allen River in Michigan, the international partner on the global grant. “They didn’t know where they were going to find shelter. They didn’t have a means to support their families, because they had lost their jobs at the same time. It was absolutely devastating.”

The $323,000 grant paid for training and education programs, business coaching, and a microcredit loan program to help businesses start or restart in the community. Once the Alberta provincial government learned about the training program, it offered supplemental funding, so the club was able to offer more, MacDougall says.

In total, MacDougall says the training portion of the grant, completed in 2016, reached 364 new and existing business owners. Several business expos and forums allowed owners to talk to experts about business continuity, career planning, and other topics. Forty businesses received direct business coaching. The organization Community Futures Highwood administered the Rotary-funded microloans and training. About $46,000 remains to be issued.

  • $323000.00

    Rotary Foundation global grant for training and education

  • $30000.00

    amount of recovery loan each business received

Seven businesses, including Aisling Interiors, received loans of $30,000 each, which paid for things such as tools, equipment, or renovations, the kinds of things for which businesses – particularly those with little or no collateral – might normally have trouble finding.

The town set up tents for devastated businesses to have a place to operate, where Young and Zukowski-Young initially planned to reopen their shop. They used their $30,000 Rotary loan to instead purchase antiques to sell. But then they decided to open a coffee shop in their old space, using most of the antiques as furnishings and décor to replace what they had lost. 

A River Ran Through It Café opened in February 2015. The loan also covered office equipment and some of the new coffee-making equipment, and the couple are still selling window coverings as part of their original design business.

Recovery could take 10 years

The business loans haven’t been issued as fast as the High River club expected. But it has also been a slow rebuild: Officials estimate that total recovery could take 10 years. “It’s very difficult to restart business when major construction is still happening,” says MacDougall. “There’s no parking, and there’s traffic problems, so it’s been slow. There’s still very significant need.”

At the same time, the collaborative spirit of the community is evident. The local Boy Scout hall can operate because the High River club replaced its damaged hot water tank and furnace. In December 2013, the club invited families in town out for a barbecue featuring popular entertainer Tom Jackson. “People hadn’t been out for a night for months,” MacDougall says. And before the business recovery global grant, the club had raised about $250,000 to revitalize a damaged and popular park downtown, installing a new stage, playground, and fire pits. 

These efforts were designed to help heal the community and renew its spirit while it rebuilt structures and businesses.

“They came out on the strong end and they fought back hard, and they really had so much to deal with on so many different levels,” Schmidt says. “I think we’ve all gained tremendous respect for that area.”

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