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Improved rain, river forecasts lift soggy spirits in southern Alberta

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Improved forecasts Wednesday were lifting soggy spirits in southern Alberta where heavy rainfall and swollen rivers had residents worried about evacuations and damage to their homes.

"The rain is lightening, the infrastructure is catching up to the excessive flows," said Rob Steel, mayor of Claresholm, where a voluntary evacuation centre had to be set up after rain came down in sheets earlier in the day.

"If it stays like this, it'll just get better and better as each hour goes by."

Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman said concerns were eased when lighter rainfall lowered peak forecasts for the Oldman River, which runs through his city.

"Things are looking much better," he said. "To our relief, the rainfall upstream wasn't as severe as predicted overnight so the provincial river flow forecast has improved significantly."

The same forecast was welcome news in Medicine Hat, where Alberta Environment was predicting peak flows on the South Saskatchewan River at 2,400 cubic metres per second — less than half the original prediction that had people fearing a repeat of the deluge that happened in 2013.

"What we're telling people now is they can stand down," said Medicine Hat fire chief Brian Stauth. "We don't anticipate that we are going to evacuate."

However, there were still problems. Late Wednesday, the Town of Fort Macleod declared a state of emergency after low-lying areas and Highway 811 were breached by water.

The town said there would be no mandatory evacuations, but urged residents to call 911 if they felt they needed assistance to leave their homes.

"We're still very concerned because there's a heavy rainfall warning in effect," Steel said. "This is still a very dynamic situation."

Alberta Environment spokesman Evan Friesenhan explained that initial river forecasts were based on rainfall predictions of up to 200 millimetres in the southwest part of the province. While rainfall was as heavy as predicted, it wasn't as widespread.

"We did get a localized area that received 175 millimetres, but as we moved away from that bull's eye the amounts decreased significantly," said Friesenhan. "We didn't get the 200 millimetres over as large an area as was forecast."

Even with the threat subsiding, the mess left behind is significant.

Claresholm, a town of 3,800 about 130 kilometres south of Calgary, has about 40 damaged homes — some surrounded by water and some swamped, Steel said. In some cases, sewers backed up.

About 250 homes in Lethbridge were affected, most with flooded basements.

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Guy Weadick said 20 families were forced from their homes on the Blood reserve. They were being housed in a recreation facility in nearby Standoff.

In all, nine communities and municipal districts declared states of local emergency. Another three activated their emergency response plans.

The flooding came as southern Alberta prepared to mark the one-year anniversary of the 2013 flood. In total, 100,000 people had to flee their homes last June. Damage estimates have reached as high as $6 billion.

Communities hit the hardest in that flood — including Canmore, Calgary and High River — are further to the north of the area currently experiencing high water and are expected to pull through relatively unscathed.

Longtime Claresholm resident Joanna Sutter said she has seen it all before.

"I've personally been flooded twice in my home and I'm trying to save it for a third time. I've been there, done this ... before and it just brings back horrible memories," she said.

The community will pull through, she said.

"There's no shortage of help here. We've been through this so many times and people are willing to step up."

Claresholm resident Phyllis Faulkner said she watched as water poured into her basement, just as it did last year.

"I'm standing there. The water's running in and I'm screaming at the top of my lungs, going, 'I can't stop it. I can't stop it,'" she said.

"I'm going to lose everything again — my brand-new furnace is under water again. My brand-new hot-water tank is under water again.

"They're done. They're toast."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton, with files from Jennifer Graham, CJOC and CHQR

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the South Saskatchewan River flows through Lethbridge

History

Updated on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 6:32 PM CDT: Adds video.

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