Alberta: Down, but far from out

Colby Cosh on a flood that has proven an opportunity for an amazing display of resilience

Down, but far from out

Lyle Aspinall/Calgary Sun/QMI Agency

The bad news broke on July 1: the 2013 Calgary Stampede won’t quite be up to snuff in all respects. Participants in the Team Cattle Penning competition had to be told that there just wasn’t enough time to prepare the Calgary Saddledome, which was awash in flood water to the eighth row of seats days ago, for the July 5 showdown. As ever, for the ways of the Stampede are mysterious and Vatican-like, word was handed down in an anonymous press release: “While they have now got most of the water removed and have implemented a program to restore at least partial use ASAP, it will not be possible to complete the host of structural tests, health and safety approvals, etc., in time for our program . . .The fragile state of the flooring alone prohibits the heavy machinery and tons of dirt at this time, let alone the host of other major issues.”

The team penning has been moved to nearby Okotoks, which escaped the worst ravages of the flooding that swept southern Alberta on June 20 and 21. And a few other events have been displaced. The heavy horse show, in which Clydesdales and Percherons parade to symphonic music, would take place under the Big Top rather than in the arena. The tractor pull has been called off altogether. Later, concerts scheduled for the Saddledome were cancelled.

But, of course, the real story is that the schedule for the Stampede, which kicked off Friday, has otherwise been little altered by a drama that changed the literal shape of Calgary. There will be a midway, fully lit up and electrified, with all the usual rides and displays. There will be chuckwagon racing and bull riding. There will be a grandstand show and showbands and fireworks. There will be belt buckles for sale in the Corral and fried food by the Olympic Park gate. The route for the parade, marshaled by extraterrestrial crooner Chris Hadfield, is unaltered.

Calgary can rightly take pride in a miracle executed largely through volunteer effort—but, then, that describes every Stampede. The Stampede’s place in Calgary life is brutally practical, so much so that annual schedules for most businesses are effectively constructed around it. Many people who carry heavy-sounding titles like “vice-president” or “senior associate” are effectively glorified Stampede event-planning personnel. The Stampede is where much of Alberta’s political and economic networking takes place, and has indeed started to extrude tendrils of influence into national affairs: the federal Liberals cancelled their Stampede breakfast so that Justin Trudeau could be photographed helping with cleanup, and Thomas Mulcair dared not follow suit.

Post-flood images of a drowned Calgary downtown shocked the entire country, and the city remained technically in a state of emergency that gave municipal officials and city police broad powers up until Thursday, July 4. The city’s Chinatown and its East Village neighbourhood are still badly waterlogged; both had a large number of flooded-out senior citizens, several hundred of whom are still living with family or in student dormitories at Olds College. Underground parking in the core, crucial to commuting workers, is being pumped out painstakingly, level by level. Officialdom is still sorting out issues such as what to do with all the mud shovelled out of basements, which cannot just be poured down overtaxed storm drains.

But for the most part the flood has proven an opportunity for an amazing display of resilience on the part of a city that grew to trust its river a little too much. Calgary’s business district had power restored in an astonishingly short time—allowing, in turn, for fast elimination of unruly moisture in individual buildings. The city’s water supply remained potable through the entire crisis, an accomplishment that will surely be studied by future civil engineering students around the world. At last count, roughly 25 homes within the city limits may require condemnation. Emergency shelters within Calgary, never very full of evacuees because of the abundance of private generosity, are rapidly being put out of “business.”

And the complete death toll from the flood within the city stands at one: Lorraine Gerlitz, an active and intelligent 83-year-old widow, was found alone in a flooded apartment despite being approached by police and assuring them that she would leave. (The number almost became two on June 30, city emergency boss Bruce Burrell noted, when some premature rambler went down to the Bow River to gawk and got an impromptu dunking when the bank gave way.)

Things are not so felicitous in High River, whose 13,000 residents are only now completing a “staged re-entry” to their neighbourhoods. About 5,000 citizens living in “Sector One” were admitted to the flood zone June 29 to survey the damage up close at last. Of the 1,817 buildings in the area, 719 had been designated as “orange” denoting habitability only after “extensive repairs.” Another 141 had received the dreaded “Not safe to occupy or live in” red colour. An information sheet circulated by the town’s inspection staff notes, “Red ranges from fully compromised electrical to severe structural damage,” but does not necessarily mean demolition. Main street business owners gained access to their premises July 1.

The RCMP never succeeded in completely evacuating High River, where the flooding of the Highwood is believed to have taken three lives, and residents who complied with evacuation orders created an ugly scene at police barricades June 28 as they pleaded to be let back into the town. (As early as June 25, police had intercepted and arrested three people trying to run their blockade.) A complex political situation grew even thornier when evacuees learned that Mounties were entering private homes, exercising their privileges under the state of emergency, and collecting firearms they found stored or abandoned in the open.

The town’s overmatched mayor, Emile Blokland, ceded control of emergency operations to Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths on June 28. The province took the extraordinary step of depositing $50 million into the town’s bank account immediately, and Blokland was able to announce a delay in property tax deadlines and forgiveness of May and June utility bills. But Blokland seemed to have the same trouble establishing a rapport with the townsfolk at first that the RCMP did. A tongue-tied RCMP sergeant initially explained the gun roundup by saying, “We just want to make sure that all of those things are in a spot that we control simply because of what they are.”

After an outcry that went as far as a finger-wagging from the Prime Minister, the force moved quickly to return the guns, regardless of the condition and place in which they had been found. The irony is that the RCMP was entering flooded homes partly because so many High River residents were known to be reluctant to abandon their property; having established the perceived danger that a natural disaster might be used to confiscate inconvenient or illegal belongings, the cops may have inadvertently encouraged future diehards when the next calamity hits somewhere.

Meanwhile, High River’s MLA happens to be provincial Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, and there were some signs of the enormous constant tension between her and the government during the crisis. Dog owner Smith helped with pet rescue as the flood hit and found herself trapped for most of a day in the High River hospital with constituents. Afterward she complained of being singled out for exclusion from provincial emergency briefings and made some careful common cause with frustrated residents, agreeing that the sealing-off of the flood zone had lasted too long, and sympathizing with reluctant evacuees described as “defiant.”

Relations between Smith and Rick Fraser, a Calgary MLA deputized by the provincial cabinet to run High River relief efforts, eventually improved. Smith proved to be a key independent source of information updates for evacuees, and with Fraser handling fine details ranging from landfill access to the rules governing various triage colours assigned to homes, the re-entry process went smoothly once it got under way. A new system of provincially issued debit cards for displaced evacuees (each loaded with $1,250 per adult and $500 per child) was a success.

For High River, and perhaps for the politicians, the rebuild will be the really tricky part. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the town’s name is a case of “It does what it says on the tin.” When the future Edward VIII bought the Bar-U Ranch on the banks of the Highwood in 1923, the first upgrade on the agenda was a new bridge to replace one “washed out during the recent floods.” There were boats in the streets in 1932; a few area residents were marooned by sudden flooding in 1942; minor floods followed in 1952 and 1967, with very narrow escapes in 1961 and 2008, and the town had to be partially evacuated in 2005 and 2011.

Some High River residents are taking the hint and declaring their intention not to come back. For those who are determined to stay, but who are facing an ominous orange or red designation, the province has promised unlimited generosity. But does unlimited relief also imply unrestricted relief? Or will the owners of written-off houses be free to take their chances all over again in the same spot?

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