Calgary: The Pioneer Spirit Lives on!

“I am uncharacteristically speechless. Just had a quiet walk in Rideau. Stories that reduced me to tears but mostly filled me with joy.”  These are the words from a tweet of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as he visited the upscale community of Rideau shortly after the floodwaters began to recede. Like all Calgarians, he was shocked at the destruction caused by our beloved and usually benign Bow and Elbow Rivers. At the same time, he was overjoyed by the amazing community spirit that erupted as soon as there was a call for volunteers to help with the cleanup. As the water receded, the community’s pent up demand to help burst forth. 

One call for 600 volunteers resulted in 5,000 people showing up so jobs for another 1,400 people were quickly found with 3,000 going home disappointed they couldn’t help.  Children set up lemonade stands with proceeds going to help those impacted by the flood.  Food Trucks immediately mobilized and went to the communities hardest hit, giving away free food to volunteers and evacuated families returning to their homes filled with water and mud.  Strangers just showed up on the muddiest streets asking, “How can I help!”

Mayor Nenshi became a hero during the floods, much like Rudy Giuliani the  NYC mayor did during the World Trade Centre disaster.  He was our superman, as were many of the Alderman who worked tirelessly help their constituents find help.  Calgary is very fortunate to have a very dedicated and caring City Council. 

While some might find this a strange phenomenon in our 21st century world of urban alienation where NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard) and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) are often cited manifestations of our urban self-centerness. However, a strong underlying sense of community is alive and well in “cowtown” and I expect in many other cities too.  When in need, neighbours come together to help each other be it the Goderich Tornado (2011), Slave Lake Fire (2011) or the Halifax Hurricane (2003) or now the Calgary Flood.  When there is no need, we mind our own business and get on with our lives, which often doesn’t include the neighbours.  

While not always evident in the day-to-day comings and goings of suburbanites with their attached garages and six-foot fences or those in the cookie-cutter downtown high-rise condos, Calgarians still do, at their core, have a strong sense of community.  It doesn’t hurt either that Calgarians live in small communities (most less than 10,000 people), each with its own name and identity.  In many ways, Calgary is not a city as much it is a collective of small towns.

Everyone pitched in to help with the clean up - young and old.  A couple of women in their 80s drove up to one of these many help centres and said we are too old to help with the clean up so we baked muffins.  Everyone did their part.  

Yes it is part our pioneer cultural base that everyone was expected to work hard and look after themselves.  However, if someone is truly in need, the community does come together and look after them. Calgary’s almost impromptu “flood-raising” efforts are a reminder of our prairie past when “barn raising” events were very common with neighbours getting together to help a family build or rebuild a barn.  Calgary’s caring culture is not totally restricted to emergencies, every year the citizens and corporations of Calgary donate significantly more per capita to United Way than any other city in Canada, maybe in North America.  Simply put, Calgarians care about their neighbour’s welfare; it just manifests itself differently at different times. 

It was a dirty job but someone had to do it.  Like the pioneers a hundred years ago, Calgarians grabbed their boots and got the job done.  It was a massive job, but there was a stampede of volunteers.  

Calgary’s annual “reminder” of our sense of community is the Calgary Stampede. It is a time when young and old, rich and poor come together to celebrate - neighbourhood pancake breakfasts, square dancing in the streets of downtown or watching the rodeo or chucks together.  It is more than just another signature festival, or a “pretty face” to attract tourists it is a reminder that the heart and soul of this city is its sense of community. It is fitting that the first flood recovery decision made was that the Stampede 2013 must go on.

On June 24, just three days after the flood, Stampede President Bob Thompson announced "We have pumped millions of gallons of water from our facilities, scraped the mud from our tarmac, commenced the cleanup of our Park, all to welcome guests from around the world. Last year the theme of our centennial was 'We are greatest together.' A year later this motto could not be more true! We are greatest together. We will be hosting the greatest outdoor show on earth, come hell or high water.

Throughout our entire history we have never cancelled a show, despite two wars and a Great Depression – 2013 will be no exception."

That was all Calgarians needed to hear.  The “come Hell or high water” became the rallying call for the entire city to cleanup our mess - not just the Stampede grounds, but all the flooded communities - and get on with our lives. 

This is no small task given the flood happened exactly two weeks just 14 days before the Stampede Parade kick off.  The Stampede Grounds and the surrounding communities were the most heavily damaged by the floods and at the time were still under water.  However, once the community’s “can do attitude” was ignited, a second flood occurred, a flood of tens of thousands of volunteers came forth to help with the cleanup. 

Calgary’s “pioneer spirit” lives on even as the city become more and more cosmopolitan. 

Over 50,000 of these t-shirts were sold in the first week.  A politically correct version for kids was also printed i.e. come heck or highwater.  

Throughout the "state of emergency" Calgarians kept their sense of humour.  

If you like this blog you might like: Calgary Flood 2013: Disaster Meets Community  

Calgary Flood 2013: Man vs Nature

Perhaps it is a bit early to be calling the flood of 2013 the flood of the century, but it sure looks that way.  I have lived in Calgary for over 30 years and have never seen anything like this.  

As Mayor Nenshi pointed out the flood is "bad and good" for Calgary. BAD in the destruction and costs that it will take to restore the city's infrastructure back to its pre-flood state, but "GOOD" in how the community has come together to help out family friends and strangers. There was no looting, no hysteria, not deaths (in the City of Calgary) everyone was calm and rational.  Perhaps it was our pragmatic pioneer independent spirit showing through.  Without exception Calgarians have bonded over this emergency enhancing an already strong the sense of community.   

While over 100,000 Calgarians were evacuated the need for alternative accommodations was met mostly by "family and friends," only a handful of schools and public buildings were needed.  As soon as a "state of emergency" was called local social media was swamped  with people offering their home not only to family and friends. but to strangers.  I saw one tweet that said "I don't have an extra bed, but I have a comfy couch if anyone needs it," others were offering food, meals and donations.  Twitter was full of tweets expressing citizens' praise and respect for our emergency workers and city staff.  

It was also impressive how the Mayor, Premier and Prime Minister were on site quickly sharing information with Calgarians about what was happening and what was going to be done.  Nenshi, Redford and Harper all showed tremendous leadership in the face of a pending crisis, as did all the Alderman, MLA's, Police and Fire Chief.  I believe this leadership was instrumental in keeping Calgarians calm and allowing for an orderly evacuation of 75,000 people in a matter of a few hours. 

On Saturday, while the city didn't return to normal, people were starting to go about there normal weekend activities.  The City Centre was full of people walking and cycling along or near the river trying to grasp an understanding of what had happened.  

Already Calgarians were ready to move on.  Stampede was planning on how in two weeks they were going to produce a parade for over 100,000 people and host over 1 million people for the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" on a flooded Stampede Park - nobody doubts it will happen.

It was surreal to know that billions of dollars of damage happened in just one day. It was a lesson in humility taught by mother nature.

The following pictures have been appropriated from various tweets, images sent by friends in emails and my own.   


"Patience, common courtesy and politeness everywhere - in traffic, in grocery stores and on pathways.  Everyone was being a good neighbour.  I never heard a horn honk despite likely the worst traffic gridlock Calgary has ever seen. Friendliness everywhere - groups of people talking as if they had known each other for years.  Tragedy brings out the best in our society." GG

 "Interesting to note that there was no Canadian flags jury rigged over a damage house, no flag waving of any sort.  Also no comments about being saved or survived because of the Lord.  Very different atmosphere than when disasters strike in US." BG

"It was a lesson in humility taught by mother nature. Unfortunately the Climate Change computer modelling predicts weather will become more chaotic and intense.  Unfortunately this may well not be the flood of the century." BB (scientist)

History of Bow River Floods:

The Bow River has been flooding for centuries maybe millennium.  Read more about the history of the Bow River floods. 

 Related media comments: 

"...we are also a wired city. With high levels of penetration in mobile devices and social media – the city has 760,000 people on Facebook (over 70 per cent of the population) – we begin to see how connectivity fuels the city’s spirit.  When the relatively short evacuation notice arrived on Thursday, our connected population used online channels to get the word more  Brian Singh, Globe & Mail, June 23rd.    

Personal Stories: 

Lisa Kadane about her families experience. "When we heard our neighbourhood was being evacuated on Thursday evening I wasn’t yet thinking like a refugee, weighing in my head what I couldn’t live without. Instead, we packed up the laptops and some suitcases in an orderly fashion, and even sat down to a family dinner to eat the damn meatloaf. Honestly, I thought the emergency response was a bit much; that they were being too cautious. After all, our house and neighbourhood had survived the flood of ’05!"  Read  More  

The Numbers: 

At one point the water flow in the Bow River was on par with that of Niagara Falls.  The Atlantic Cities produced a good summary of the Calgary Flood 2013's facts and figures. Read more.

Aerial image of Prince's Island, Calgary's summer playground totally flooded.  In many ways this is the heart of the city.  

Access to one of the pedestrian/bike bridges over the Bow River from the northside to downtown flooded.  Normally thousands of Calgarians use these stairs and ramps.  

Panoramic view of Stampede Park totally flooded.  Normally the Elbow River is just a quiet river at the based of the bluff maybe 15 meters wide at most.

New 4th Street SE underpass flooded. Water must be 10 meters deep.  Luckily it was designed to flood.  Kudos to all of the engineers who have worked on Calgary's downtown infrastructure as they have handled the flood with little or no damage. 

Sandy Beach pedestrian bridge is probably one of the few pieces of infrastructure to be damaged. The Elbow River at this point is usually only a few feet deep.  A popular place for people and dogs to play in the river. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper surveying the damage.  Our politicians were amazing in their leadership as they were calm and articulate in the face of disaster.  Our emergency officers and city staff were tireless in their efforts.  The emergency response plan was outstanding.  

Alderman Gael MacLeod with volunteers sorting out clothes for those who were evacuated which included homeless shelters and affordable housing for seniors.  As soon as a state of emergency was called Calgarians were asking how can they help.  Calgary has a longstanding culture of caring and volunteering.  

Macleod Trail is one of the major downtown streets with City Hall, Municipal Building, Central Library, EPCOR Performing Arts Centre and Olympic Plaza all fronting onto the Trail.  

At the end of the day Friday an amazing double rainbow appeared, as if mother nature was saying better times are ahead. 

On Saturday (next day) people flocked to the flooded areas to see for them the damage.  Along the Crescent Heights bluff that has a commanding view of the downtown and Bow River valley hundreds of people lined the promenade for an expansive view of the flooding of Prince's Island and the northern edge of downtown. 

On the ground the military were already moving in to determine how best to clean up the mess.  

Eerie image of the lower deck of the Centre Street Bridge that was right at the height of the Bow River as it crested.  You can see some of the mud but otherwise no damage. While I was there a larger log floating down the river crashed into this bridge with a loud crack like a bomb going off and yet the bridge acted like it didn't even care.  I tip my hat to the engineers who designed these structures.   


This is what Prince's Island lagoon looks like today.  The next photo shows what it looked like before and what it will hopefully look like after.  

Nature has a strange way of teaching humans to be humble. 

Inside Calgary's state of the art Emergency Operations Centre hundreds of professionals from various disciplines are implementing a coordinated emergency response. Some are working 20+ hour shifts. 

Rendering of Calgary's Emergency Operations Centre.