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The community of Canmore declared a local state of emergency last week due to rising waters in Cougar Creek. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)
The community of Canmore declared a local state of emergency last week due to rising waters in Cougar Creek. (Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail)

After the flood: Reflections from writers one week later Add to ...

My daughter is going away for a year. We were to travel down the coast of Oregon and California for a week and meet up with her mother. The hotel rooms were in place, the rental car, the flights – Saturday morning, out of Calgary (me) and Toronto (her) to Portland via Vancouver. But on Wednesday of last week, I noticed how hard it was raining. Normally in the mountains a shower lasts 20 minutes. This was a deluge. Biblical. Not that Biblical weather is unusual around here.

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By Wednesday evening, cellphone pictures of Cougar Creek in Canmore were circulating around Banff. Cougar Creek had been dry every time I’d seen it – a long V of rock running up into the mountains. People built their houses out to the edge of it. To an outsider, they seemed a little close, but what does an outsider know? The residents have intimate knowledge of how changeable and angry the natural world can get; they don’t often take chances.

But Cougar Creek was suddenly very much not dry. It looked like a huge dirty blood vessel about to have an aneurysm. And according to the TV, High River and parts of Calgary were under water already.

By lunchtime on Thursday, the pictures were more alarming. By Thursday afternoon, houses on Cougar Creek were beginning to sag, and I started to wonder if Jerry Kobalenko’s place on Cougar Creek was going to be in one piece, if the Warshawskis would be needing to re-renovate the basement of their lovely place in Canmore.

Meanwhile, you know how it goes – you wait, you hope for the best, you neurotically replay your options: Should I make a dash for Calgary? Should I cancel that flight and drive to Vancouver? … What about a helicopter? The rest of the time you ride your cellphone and feel for people in worse situations.

When people started cancelling their plans to paddle the Bow on Friday to celebrate the solstice. I knew things were serious. The solstice is a big deal in Banff – the longest day of the year in a town benighted by nine months of winter.

Cougar Creek was now undercutting the Trans-Canada to the east, blocking access to the Calgary airport. The last person I knew of made it out Thursday before lunch. There were reports of mudslides closing the road to the west as well, between Banff and Lake Louise, between Lake Louise and Golden.

Banff was cut off from the rest of the world. It was a strange sensation, unthinkable in the modern world. It was also a serious situation. Banff has a resident population of about 8,400, but the town’s daily working summer population approaches 30,000. With the road out, trucks couldn’t get through: The Banff Centre reportedly had enough food to last until Sunday.

People were walking around with their phones in their hands all the time, gathering over each other’s screens to see pictures from friends: windows with the water outside rising to the top of the curtains, offices with water breaching the tops of doors, roads become lakes. Aunts tried to convince their 20-year-old nieces that yes, an order to evacuate Hillhurst meant West Hillhurst as well.

It was surprisingly hard to get reliable information. The TV had pictures it kept running over and over, like a stretch of a bad dream, but its estimates of how long it would keep raining, how much the river had risen and how long the Trans-Canada would be out were as unreliable as meteorological reports usually are in the mountains. Estimates for the drive to Calgary varied hourly: I heard everything from six hours to 14 days.

Picayune as my concerns were compared to those directly affected, I agonized for hours before figuring that there was no way the highway would be repaired in time to make a flight early Saturday morning. But the drive west from Banff to Golden – normally 90 minutes – was reportedly taking four to six hours. It was then another eight hours to Vancouver.

Then, in a hallway, I heard an angry guy say that three of his employees had made it to Golden from Banff in two hours – the road was clear because no one was using it. I took off for Vancouver an hour later, at 4:30 p.m. last Friday.

The Bow was swelling to the roadway in places, as I drove west. It looked like an African river, brown and crowded with debris, implements, trees, the detritus of bank life, something beyond our control.

By the time I slipped past Lake Louise 40 minutes later, the sun was out and I was on my way. I felt lucky again.

Ian Brown is the Banff Centre/Globe and Mail Canada correspondent.

Our greatest moment

This is the year a mud-covered rubber boot dethrones a cowboy boot as Calgary’s iconic summer footwear. This is also the year we stop remembering the ’88 Olympics as Calgary’s greatest moment.

I’ve lived all of my 40 years here, my affection for the city waxing and waning. There have been times, especially at the peak of our boastful booms – or when the votes are counted after every federal election – when Calgary gets me down. Every now and again it feels like a metropolis fuelled by ruthless self-interest. There is another side to this city, though – a side that has always been there but has shone especially bright in the past few days. The flood, for all the damage and heartbreak it brought, has exposed the inherent goodness of this city and its citizens. Calgarians are behaving as if they’ve always wanted this chance to do good.

It’s not just the volunteers we’ve seen on the news offering their hands and backs to clean out flooded basements. As I write this, restaurants and food trucks are giving away meals, U-Haul is offering free storage, and at least one landlord of an apartment building in the flood zone has forgiven his tenants’ July rent. A dress shop is donating grad gowns to distressed teen girls who’ve lost theirs in the flood. Strangers are doing each other’s laundry. They’re watching each other’s kids and pets. Just like the flood waters themselves, the response swelled into a movement everyone wants to take part in.

An oft-told joke about Calgary goes like this: How many Calgarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten. One to screw it in, nine to reminisce about how great the 1988 Olympics were. There will be a new punch line to this old joke: It still takes ten Calgarians to screw in a light bulb. One to screw it in, the rest to tell you how kindly we treated each other during the floods of 2013. The accumulation of intimate compassion has usurped the grand spectacle of ’88 and redefined us. From now on, we will be known by what we’ve done these past few days. And what we will continue to do in the days that follow.

There will be those elsewhere in the country who will see a bit of smugness coming from Calgary right now. A hint of self-congratulation. But in the light of our Olympian efforts and countless expressions of grace, we’ve earned the right to be proud of ourselves. This is Calgary’s new greatest moment.

Marcello Di Cintio is this year’s winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Walls:Travels Along the Barricades.

Watermarks

I used to have recurring flood dreams. The water was always clear and filled a house the way water fills a glass. I could swim around and up the stairs, and look down at the furniture as though the house had become an enormous aquarium.

I asked a friend what flood dreams meant. She shrugged, “They’re supposed to be about creativity, I think. Or maybe blocked creativity.”

A real flood is dirty, muddy and devastating. A real flood is nothing like the crystal water of my aquarium dreams. Six days after the Alberta floods, the Elbow River, one block from my condo building, shines milky-brown. The neighbourhood is still under mandatory evacuation, without power, an apocalyptic scene of roadblocks and mud-caked volunteers helping residents haul ruined possessions to the curb. Thick hoses pump water from basements. Generators roar.

I skulk the streets around my building. The water has marked its depth against cars and buildings and windows the way tree rings record a cedar’s age. Only the top three inches of an SUV are unstained. On both sides of the Elbow, residents’ lives are exposed in piles. Everything is soaked or caked the same shade of brown.

I spent a recent afternoon at a friend’s house emptying their main floor. She led me into their backyard, where her wedding dress hung from a tree, covered in mud. She touched the beading with a fingertip, and peered at me sideways without saying anything. “I think it can be restored,” I said. She looked at the ground, “Okay.”

The Elbow is usually a place of solace in this city. How many times have I floated lazily down its winding length on an inflatable mattress in the sun? Now, water-logged and moulding mattresses sit on the side of the road waiting for pickup.

Water is unpredictable. This flood is an unexpected reminder that no matter how organized and safe and cautious we are, we are never fully in control of our lives. Water is a cleansing element, too – a beautiful, renewing and energizing force that also has the power to flood, storm, freeze and drown us.

The flood has compelled us to see differently, help others, exist in limbo, purge, let go, and consider the incredible strength of community. Out of this, as the water levels stabilize, new visions, ideas and insights are brewing.

If water is supposed to represent creativity, or blocked creativity, Calgary has just undergone its creative bath of the century.

Samantha Warwick is the author of Sage Island.

Interrupted, freed

We welcome, even crave, low-stakes interruption. A snow day, the flu, a royal wedding, the fire drill in elementary school that takes us out of math to the blustery playground – no time to grab your coats! We secretly hope there really is a small fire, not enough to hurt anyone, just enough to let us go home for the day.

I was near Slave Lake in northern Alberta when the texts and newsfeeds came, and ping-ponged between distress over the magnitude of the destruction and perverse let’s-see-how-crazy-this-gets giddiness. This unadmirable reaction was aided by distance and imagination, but is also a feeling that epitomizes the gulf between the Merely Interrupted and the Actually Affected.

Even on my return to Calgary I was lucky enough to be among the former. I was personally untouched by the floods – by the brutal loss of life, gutting of homes and displacement – which made it morally impossible to indulge in chaos as spectacle, the awesome power of nature as theatre. But floating mid-spectrum, the floods still offered a weird sense of liberation – from work, routine and social impotence.

Faced with rescuing furniture from friends’ muddy basements or hosting evacuee relatives, petty stresses and inbox angst lose ground. Last weekend, a friend’s father had to be convinced of the reality that the downtown cathedral where he usually plays Sunday mass was off limits. On Monday, he told my friend, “Your mother and I had a wonderful weekend. It was the first one we’ve had off in 25 years.”

For some, there is no escape. A writer colleague works for a suspending-operations-is-not-an-option energy company, and her high-ground home became a default interim office as well as temporary home for displaced friends. But extreme circumstance also creates space for hope and everyday heroes in the form of generous plumbers and tireless mayors.

Soon the fortunate aren’t content being spared: The Merely Interrupted want to be part of the action, to engage in the authentic rituals of helpfulness and camaraderie they see among the afflicted, to participate in the cleanup, comforting, rebuilding, in acts with thick lines between effort and result.

Can we manufacture tragedy-free, fire-drill releases from daily malaise and summon these unscripted, noble traits more often outside of desperate times? A thought from the Merely Interrupted.

Kris Demeanor is a Canadian songwriter.

Mad Max weather

When Calgarians helped their mud-covered neighbours last week, myself among them, they waded into three unspoken rivers: the energy of carbon emissions long spent; the chronicles of extreme weather foretold; and an untenable level of provincial unpreparedness (when flood warnings arrive six hours after the evacuation order, as they did in Canmore, you don’t know if you are living a comedy or a tragedy).

Now, Alberta, as every Canadian knows, is something of an expert on producing atmospheric warming emissions. We make a formidable contribution to the economic forces undermining the energy balance of our climate, a global commons. The oil sands, for example, remains Canada’s fastest-growing source of carbon emissions. And the expression “tar sands karma” came up in several flooded households.

Now for the repeated warnings. A small mountain of academic papers and government reports has said that climate change could turn the west, already an extreme geography, into an unpredictable soap opera. The climate that gave us regular seasons, dependable snow melt, the insurance of glaciers as well as reliable rainfall will be replaced with a new sort of anarchy – “droughts of longer duration and greater frequency, as well as unusual wet periods and flooding.” Insects will munch our forests and 100-year flood events will become routine visitors. Alberta has tellingly experienced two record floods since 2005.

But these studies, all ignored or denied, do not really capture the reality of the thing. They lack the deep emotion that a flooded family home invokes. A twisted suspension bridge speaks of loss much more strongly than an academic paper on extreme rainfall. And none deliver the visceral hit to the senses that a yard full of soaked paintings and photographs delivers. Believe me: Climate change collides into your life like a traffic accident and leaves you breathless. And then, like an alcoholic parent, it promises a string of unending tragedies.

A grand flood wipes away memories and communities as surely as it changes the course of rivers and the sides of mountains. It may wake us from our collective denial or it may not. But I know this: Climate change is now eroding civilization as surely as it has changed my beloved city.

Andrew Nikiforuk is as a long-time resident of Calgary, writer and contributing editor for the Tyee.

Home and away

I was evacuated from Montgomery near the Bow River in northwest Calgary, and I couldn’t think of much to take. My notebook, my computer, a little jade apple a friend gave me for luck. But everything else seemed replaceable: the furniture, my clothes, even my books.

I don’t mean that I was calm about the state of emergency. I worried about my mom – it’s her house. I worried about damages, money, time. And I felt a loss of normalcy, stability. The loss of that comfortable, predictable feeling that people go on vacation to escape, then appreciate when they return. I’d lost the sense of having a safe, welcoming home.

I’d left home before, but that was by choice. I was adventurous and self-absorbed – I was 18 – and nothing could have kept me in Calgary. I moved to Victoria, where there are only two seasons, sleepy and pleasant.

Then, as I approached 30, something strange happened. Despite the sprawl and the traffic and the snow and the cowboy hats, I missed home.

I moved back last August and found the city changed. There was a car-share and a cool mayor. And – the writer in me should have recognized this as foreshadowing – the winter wasn’t so bad.

I had changed, too. I can’t deny it: I now find cowboy hats totally hot.

This year I was incomprehensibly lucky to work as the University of Calgary’s writer-in-residence, and my luck held. My mom’s house wasn’t touched by the floods, though the water lapped up to our lawn.

But from our windows, we can see destroyed houses. So I put on rubber boots and helped a stranger tear drywall from his soaked-through house.

I’m glad

that we’re standing together, up to our knees in mud. Soon we’ll party together and eventually get back to the business-as-usual of pipelines and oil sands. Writer or truck driver, around here it’s all the same paycheque – we’re all up to our throats in that black mud.

But now that we’ve experienced such loss, maybe we’ll turn our thoughts to those in northern Alberta and along proposed pipeline routes who fear environmental devastation. Maybe some of us who lost our homes for even just a few days will stand with others – First Nations, ranchers, even caribou and wolves –who could lose theirs.

Deborah Willis was the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program writer-in-residence for 2012-2013. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was nominated for a Governor-General’s Award.

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