Calgary is an odd city. Its prevalent image presents it as the rough-hewn centre of the oil and gas sector and fortress for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. I moved out here from Toronto in 2000, and admit that I didn’t love it. Everyone I knew who moved here later moved back east. But I worked at it and got involved, and over time, the true mettle of the city emerged. And during this flooding crisis, with the worst to come, I guarantee that the rest of the country will witness the true spirit of the city I now call home.
Around the world, responses to disasters range from utter chaos to the remarkable. In the North American context, from the horror of Hurricane Katrina to last year’s Sandy, the unease of evacuation and the challenge of recovery are well documented. We in North America are fortunate that we have a functioning economic system that allows for multiple levels of redundancy, social support systems and insurance not available elsewhere in the world. However, their benefits are not always realized in a time of crisis.
Calgary has been fortunate. It is an affluent city – it has the highest per capita income in Canada on any metropolitan area, lowest mean age, a low level of unemployment and a predominantly white-collar workforce. While it may not have kept up with population growth, our infrastructure – transportation, environmental and electrical – is relatively robust. But 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 out rapidly.
It is via this connectedness that the spirit of the community shines through. Calgarians have been posting in great numbers on Facebook if they had a room to spare, if they have food to share, and in support of causes that ensure the well-being of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. I have witnessed remarkable acts in support of the city’s homeless drop-in centre, which had to move out of downtown to the northeastern part of the city, thus threatening its ability to feed the street population.
Once the flood is over, we can anticipate worse challenges to come. The true realization of the damage caused by the relentless rushing waters will be revealed. On Friday, trapped at home, a group of us launched a Facebook group dedicated to mobilizing citizens to assist in the forthcoming clean-up efforts. The response has been amazing. In just over half a day, we had over 2,100 people indicating that they are willing to participate in clean-up activities and another 3,000 people “liking” our page. We also launched a volunteer registration site, yychelps.ca, in a matter of hours. We even have crowdsourced experiences of price-gouging, to ensure that businesses stay honest in this crisis.
While we are stuck at home, the power of social networks is taking hold. People are quickly organizing community groups and preparing lists of resources we will need when it is safe to start our clean-up efforts. It may be easy to label the social media response as “slacktivism.” But every one of us knows someone evacuated or deeply affected by the floods, and this is where herding instincts kick in. Yes, this is Cowtown (no pun intended). And we mobilize a crowd like no other – online and in real-life.
I look forward to Canadians witnessing Calgary’s spirit over the next two weeks, and our ability to pull off the impossible by hosting another Stampede in the aftermath. Amidst this disaster, I hope Canadians will discover the optimism and can-do spirit that I have grown to love about my city.
Brian Singh, the president of Zinc Research, is a political consultant based in Calgary.