Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Study outlines strain of years-long flood evacuation

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A Red Cross study of Manitoba flood evacuees who have been out of their homes for almost three years has found many are on an "emotional roller-coaster" and are adjusting poorly to life in urban Winnipeg.

John Byrne, director general of disaster management, says a needs assessment conducted by the charitable organization at the behest of the federal government found the prolonged evacuation is taking its toll.

About 2,000 aboriginal people were displaced by the 2011 spring flood.

"We discovered there were quite a number of people who were distressed over... being away from their comfortable environment," Byrne said Friday.

"It's a known fact that in disasters worldwide when people are faced with these disastrous situations and prolonged time away, it can lead people into despair and different forms of relief. It could be alcohol. It could be any form of things."

The Red Cross findings echo what aboriginal leaders have been saying for several years.

The evacuees, scattered around Winnipeg and other parts of the province, have been living in hotels and rental accommodation. At least one reserve, Lake St. Martin, has been declared virtually uninhabitable and officials have been working to find a new home for the First Nation.

It costs $1.5 million a month to provide food and shelter for the long-term evacuees and the bill has already reached $90 million.

Aboriginal leaders, including Chief Shawn Atleo of the Assembly of First Nations, have said the constant turmoil has been devastating. They say children have missed out on school and are being exposed to the dangers of urban life -- alcohol, drugs and gangs -- and residents are disconnected from each other and their traditional ways.

The Red Cross has just signed a formal agreement with the federal government to oversee aid for the evacuees starting in February. Beyond ensuring people have food and shelter, the Red Cross will try to address their emotional needs as well, Byrne said.

"People have come from communities they are very familiar with, and they're now in a very urban setting with all of the challenges and opportunities that come together with that," he said.

"When you are out of your environment as long as they have been... there is a loss of hope. It has a strain on people's lives. It puts a stress on people."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A20

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