CALGARY – Alberta’s largest city was swamped Friday by floodwaters that submerged much of the lower bowl of the Saddledome hockey arena, displaced tens of thousands of people and forced the evacuation of the downtown core.
Mounties confirmed that two bodies were recovered from the Highwood River near High River, Alta., and that another body has been spotted in the river but hasn’t yet been recovered. None have been identified.
A woman who was reported missing after she was swept away with her camper into the Highwood River near Longview remains unaccounted for, while it wasn’t clear whether a man who was seen falling out of a canoe was able to climb back in. Witnesses had also said they saw the bodies of two men floating down the river.
“Get away from the river now!” a police officer in a helicopter bellowed to residents in the low-lying Calgary neighbourhood of Sunnyside as they surveyed torrents of water that invaded their homes and sent everything from garbage cans to cars floating away.
Communities throughout southern Alberta continued to fight a watery onslaught that began with torrential rains Wednesday night.
From Canmore and Banff in the mountain parks through to Calgary and points east, overflowing rivers continued to wash out roads and bridges, inundate homes and turn streets into dirt-brown tributaries thick with smashed trees and furniture.
About 250 mm of rain had fallen in the flood zone, the Bow River basin, and another 50 mm was expected Friday and 20 mm more on Saturday.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew in from Ottawa to tour the hardest-hit areas with Premier Alison Redford.
“I’ve seen a little bit of flooding in Calgary before,” he said. “I don’t think any of us have seen anything like this.”
Flanked by Redford and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, he said he knows residents are going through a “very difficult time.”
“If we just encourage everybody to stay optimistic, stay patient, we’ll get through this.”
He and Redford said there will be funding available under provincial and federal disaster assistance programs under the usual formulas for such incidents.
For now, Harper said it appears the flooding has peaked and stabilized, but he added it isn’t over.
“I know we’re all very concerned that if it gets much more than this it could have real impact on infrastructure and other services longer term.”
Calgary was dealing with a double whammy of overflowing water from two rivers that run through the city and converge downtown.
An estimated 75,000 residents in 25 neighbourhoods along the rivers had been ordered out of their homes and, early Friday afternoon, that order was extended to the entire downtown. With evacuations from surrounding communities added in, the total number reached 100,000.
City officials confirmed water had swamped the interior of the Saddledome, home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
“We have reports that — yes — it is up to the 10th row in the Saddledome and … I think that really paints a very clear picture of what kinds of volumes of water we are dealing with,” said Trevor Daroux, the city’s deputy police chief.
Water turned the nearby Stampede grounds into a muddy lake, lapping at the roofs of the chuckwagon barns. Nenshi said the city still hopes to be ready for the world-famous Calgary Stampede, which begins in two weeks.
In communities along the rivers, residents were left to wander and wade through streets waist-deep in water.
Mission resident Patty Thille, who lived in Halifax when Hurricane Juan hit in 2003, said her home is dry — astonishing, as it is only 100 metres from the Elbow river — but she has seen some amazing scenes.
At one point, she watched as a Jeep was swept down the street while firefighters nearby were rescuing a middle-aged man from a low-rise condo.
“We could watch it for probably about 100 metres, being swept down,” she said, adding she didn’t think anyone was inside. “It was tilted on its side and being washed away by the water.
“While we were there, the police helicopter started circling and we couldn’t quite figure out what they were projecting at us, but eventually as we got away from the area … it was essentially saying ‘This area is continuing to flood. Your only exit is from the northwest. Get out now.'”
About 1,500 evacuees were in emergency shelters, while the rest were with family or friends, said Nenshi.
The flood was forcing the implementation of emergency plans at the Calgary Zoo, which is situated on an island near where the Elbow and Bow rivers meet. Zebras were moved to a wildlife conservation centre south of the city, but the rest of the animals remained for the time being.
Schools and court trials were cancelled. Transit service in the core was not running. Traffic lights were out. Power and gas were shut off to affected areas, but some homes not in the water zone also lost utilities due to the way the system is set up.
There were long lineups and a run on bottled water at city grocery stores, even though the city has not issued a boil water order.
Nenshi said the flood situation was under control as much as it could be.
He explained that water levels on the Elbow River had crested and were slowly going down.
He suggested that levels on the Bow River — which, in Nenshi’s words, looked like an ocean — would remain steady as long as conditions didn’t change.
More than a dozen towns declared states of emergency.
Entire communities, including High River and Bragg Creek, near Calgary were under mandatory evacuation orders. The water washed out roads and bridges and flooded underpasses. Trains were running over bridge decks just above the water line.
High River was one of the hardest-hit areas. It is estimated half the people experienced flooding in their homes. In some houses, water was halfway up the front door.
Cheyenne Lowry tried to move her and her brother’s belongings to the top floor of their home in High River, Alta., but the water was lapping at her front door.
She and some friends fled to higher ground, only to become trapped by the advancing flood waters.
“I went upstairs and phoned my dad and said, `if helicopters don’t come, I love you. I’ll try to see you when I see you.’ I was bawling, my dad was on the other end of the phone. It was just disaster.”
She was eventually rescued by a large loader truck and is one of just over 200 evacuees now sleeping on cots in the Blackie arena.
Military helicopters plucked about 30 residents off rooftops. Others were rescued by boat. Some swam for their lives from stranded cars, while still more were ferried to safety in large dump trucks, front-end loaders and combines.
Phone service was cut off and cellphone coverage was spotty.
In their efforts to determine if any other citizens were missing, the RCMP asked evacuees to register at the evacuation shelters in nearby Blackie and Nanton.
Army public affairs spokesman Fraser Logan said 800 soldiers were on standby and 400 boots were already on the ground as of Friday supper hour in Canmore, Kananaskis Country, High River and Calgary.
“Everything’s on the move, so that’s why it’s hard to place numbers with locations,” Logan said from Edmonton.
He could not confirm a report that the military was building temporary bridges on Highway 40 to help get out 1,500 people who were stranded in Kananaskis Country.
“I know they are mandated to help out people with evacuation, I know some people talked about, ‘We’re able to cross this rushing water with one of our trucks that has enough clearance’ and they literally just drove across, grabbed those people, and brought them back, and then carried on. A lot of that is happening.”
By Friday afternoon, patients had been moved out of the hospital and three clinics in Calgary were shut down.
Farther west, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, pictures from the mountain town of Canmore depicted a raging creek-turned-river flooding streets and ripping up house foundations.
A spokeswoman for the town, where hundreds were forced from their homes, said Cougar Creek had changed its course several times and was heading to a new neighbourhood.
“There’s a lot of debris in the creek and if the debris gets backed up and piles up … then the creek re-routes itself very quickly around that debris,” said Sally Caudill.
Canmore residents had nowhere to go. Floods, mud, broken trees and other debris have closed off the Trans-Canada Highway near the town.
Some travel was possible, however, between Canmore and Banff and arrangements were being made for a bus to shuttle people between the two.
Canmore resident Wade Graham spent Thursday watching a refrigerator, a couch and a shed float down the river.
On Friday, he said Cougar Creek was still hammering away at homes across the street and the normal comforts of everyday life had evaporated.
“The water’s not running anymore,” he said. “We don’t have gas. It’s kind of like life has become pretty basic now. You know, how do you find food, are you sleeping well and are you warm? We’ve got supplies here, but depending on how long this lasts, it could be entertaining for sure.”
He said he couldn’t see leaving, but “it’s worse everywhere else. Where would you go?”
Redford, speaking to reporters in Calgary, called the flooding “an absolutely tragic situation.”
Redford warned that communities downstream of Calgary were yet to feel the full force of the floodwaters.
In Lethbridge, officials said they expect rising waters to soon overwhelm bridge crossings.
Medicine Hat, in the province’s southeast, declared a state of emergency. Officials expect the South Saskatchewan River to crest on Saturday.