This weekend we were environmental refugees. It happened so fast. On my commute home across the Bow River foot bridge June 21, I marveled at the water’s height, speed and ferocity, and took a video. Twenty-four hours later the spot I’d videoed was under six feet of water.
Here’s the screenshot from 5:30 PM Thursday; happy summer solstice. I continued home to make dinner – how extraordinary that ordinariness seems now.
When something’s so ferocious as to make me marvel, I should pay attention to what that’s telling me.
The news reports all evening were dire pronouncements of mandatory evacuation orders of our surrounding neighbourhoods and early indications of devastation to come. Thursday midnight our city councillor texted, tweeted and emailed to “abandon ship” as floods endangered our streets too.
If all around me there’s risk being managed, I should pack an overnight bag to grab on the way out.
Interesting to reflect on what we threw into bags on short notice. Our computers, iPhones and iPads, then some clothes, dog food and other stuff Trail needs, and house insurance policy. No photos, sentimental treasures or souvenirs, no important papers such as passports or financial documents. Just basics to get through the night even though we had no idea how long the emergency would last. We locked the doors, and taped a giant X to our door so emergency crews would know we’d evacuated (and shrugged off that it said the same to looters). I was ok leaving, knowing our possessions could be destroyed. It’s just stuff, right? Such rationalization.
It’s helpful to have ID and money, just in case i should have to prove my identity or pay for a hotel room,
So, after 1 AM Thursday, we and two other neighbours and dogs, imposed ourselves on the kind family in a dry house on the hill. All communities with names like Ridge, Hill and Heights look very attractive now. We fell into Mark and Giovanni’s guest rooms, almost comatose with exhaustion and stress. Imagine Roman, age 8, and Ani’s, age 6, surprise to wake up with 4 people and 2 dogs extra at breakfast. They were beyond gracious and wonderful and the first of many such experiences over the next four days. Patty Nowlin, a co-owner of our superb local Sunnyside Natural Market, closed, flooded, and with no power, let me shop for essentials while she skillfully organized food boxes to donate to streets around us. Meanwhile, a market clerk hand wrote a list of what I took, trusting I’d come back to pay for it when the store reopened. And remarkably, looting was minimal if at all.
Strangers helped out with no thought for their own convenience.
The rivers continued to rise and became tourist attractions despite official pleas to stay away. We became a city of gawkers, driving vast distances to – well, to gawk. One man stood outside his flooded home and yelled at gawkers taking photos to either come down from the hill and help or go home. For the most part, people came in droves to help. That was the next amazing sight to behold; Saturday, the sun and volunteers in the thousands appeared to lift the gloom. Sunday repeated and then Monday the same. With so many offices ordered closed, people had free days to help out. They just turned up to volunteer – in the thousands.
I also understand wanting to see it first hand in ‘real time’ because this event should be a game changer for the city.
It isn’t easy to visualize the narrow blue Bow River as an angry brown lake, rushing with determination to some point past our horizon. The inscriptions on Poppy Plaza, normally towering over the riverside path, were almost obliterated. The waves crashed against Poppy Plaza’s steps that sit about 20′ above the normal river bed. Poppy Plaza is on high ground at our corner, where Memorial Drive parallels Bow River, thus sparing our street. It may not be an attractive monument but I’m grateful it was big, blocky, and there.
Parts of downtown still aren’t open for business, four days after the river went to bed though it is still, in Olympic spirit, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. Short-term costs are unpredictable and long-term consequences are unforeseeable.
Get comfortable with ambiguity.
Calgary downtown was a dangerous mess and the famous Calgary Stampede became an uncertainty. Last year was its centenary of unbroken yearly events and this year – who knows. Calgary’s known for its spirit and might find a way to remove the broken infrastructure that collapsed onto its famed festival grounds. There’s less than two weeks until the fair grounds are due to open and the horse barns, livestock pens, agricultural buildings, famed Saddle Dome (in my opinion the only iconic building in Calgary), might as well be rafts. They’re submerged to the door knobs with a layer of sludge under the water. Friday the relentless rain added to the woes. But, they say the Hell or High Water Stampede will go and they might pull it off.
If anyone can put on a rocking Stampede #101 a mere 12 days after tragedy, it’ll be this city.
There’s a certain liberation in not knowing where the water would go and being impotent to do anything about it anyway. Our local streets were impassable but everywhere beyond the flood plain was as usual. There were two cities; one was under water, and one was completely unaffected, as if it were happening on the other side of planet Earth.
On Friday we moved from our rescuer’s welcoming home to our friends the Reynolds’. Six of us elegantly dined, like nothing in the city was amiss, in an upscale restaurant – fiddling while Rome burns. We felt displaced yet not so disrupted. How ordinary in an extraordinary time.
Carpe diem – live the day, eat well and laugh because the river doesn’t care.
Meanwhile, some of our friends were in nail biting races against a combination of sewer water from pipes that couldn’t cope with the surge and cold river swells raging at four times normal speed, throwing entire trees downstream. It’s possible friends will be displaced, possessionless, for months; many, many months. It puts my laissez-faire attitude of “can’t change anything so might as well dance” in perspective. I had the wonderful Reynolds family’s lovely home to escape into and resources to cope with whatever happened next. Lots of people have neither – lots, and lots and lots of people.
Pets needs their people, people need people too.
When we accepted Trail into our home, it became our ethical responsibility to keep him safe. And he’s family. We asked the kind people who took us in if we could bring Trail. I don’t know what we’d have done had they said no. Now we read of the many pets left behind, or even stolen in the confusion.
We had the opposite problem. Trail had the time of his life; everyone fussed over him at both our temporary billets. The Reynolds family is now Trail crazed, even wonderful Kathy who’s allergic to dogs. John Reynolds came home from work and lay down on the floor beside Trail before saying hello to us. Kathy, John and their fabulous daughters Lauren and Julia took Trail walking while we loaded the car for home. As we called Trail to leave, he walked over to the porch and lay down at their feet to watch us go. He loves us, he really does, but we’re apparently not exciting enough, or at least not as exciting as the Reynolds.
We went home Friday morning to clear out the fridge and freezer before everything spoiled, and returned to our Reynolds refuge. Tweets flew fast. When we learned all our neighbours were home bound Saturday, electricity or no electricity, we packed the car. An official “Welcome Home” flyer at our door listed how to safely re-enter. Wow, this is a city with a great emergency plan.
Our house was dry at 9:00 PM Saturday. No gas smell, no river or sewer water in the basement and no power. And then, at 10:40 PM, power was suddenly wonderfully restored. All the lights we hadn’t turned off because we didn’t know they were on just sparked and lit up like beacons guiding us home. A spontaneous street party erupted as neighbours rushed to porches to cheer the lights coming on with a chorus of John Lennon’s Power to the People Right On.
We slept at home – safe, dry and beyond grateful for everything that did and didn’t happen.
The budget for clean up is in the billions of dollars and the total damage hasn’t been assessed yet because the rivers are still high, rainstorms are still forecast and buildings are still sloshing with water in their basements.
The City of Calgary and its impressive Mayor Nenshi had a disaster emergency plan that worked. Within hours of the peak water falling, trucks, equipment and people were on the job. Monday I walked to my Parks Canada dream job to get my computer and mobile. I passed this line up of trucks awaiting deployment around the city. As I worked from home, a stream of uniformed people came by as part of the door-to-door check-in, assessing needs and offering information. The other hordes, aside from the efficient emergency workers and caring volunteers, are the opportunistic mosquitoes thriving everywhere.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the politicking, the squabbles, the pettiness and the politics of fear just don’t matter and people show off their kinship to the angels. This weekend was one of those times for many of us in Calgary. As a conflict manager and as a human being who received help when in need, it warms my heart to see the impacts on our collective humanity from this collaboration at all levels.
May it continue in this spirit.