Calgary continues slow recovery after flooding

CALGARY — The Globe and Mail

Community members help out the neighbour in the Calgary neighbourhood of Bowness, June 23, 2013 which was flooded by the Bow River. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

A crane in Calgary’s downtown is unstable. The bridge over the Elbow River by the Stampede grounds is structurally unsound. Water fills a construction pit in the blossoming East Village – a hole where a building was supposed to emerge.

Monday marks this city’s fifth day in a state of emergency, and even as power is expected to return to most of downtown early this week, Alberta’s largest city will remain ugly and dangerous.

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Atco and Graham construction trailers smashed into trees when the Bow River swept them away. They sit mangled in the woods. Just east of them, the Bow ripped part of a Calgary Zoo fence into its waters.

And then there are the homes. The Bow and Elbow rivers did not discriminate. One Elbow Park resident opened the door of a silver Porsche to inspect the damage, after water had receded to its grill. The flooding pushed hundreds of low-income seniors in Bridgeland out of their homes and into evacuation centres in the middle of the night. Single-level bungalows in some parts of Bowness, home to the wealthy and the working-class, had water just shy of their roofs.

The sewer system is out in the communities of Elbow Park, Bowness, and Sunnyside, even though some people there can return home.

“Given the magnitude of this, I mean, they call it one in 100 years,” Calgary Police Service Chief Rick Hanson said in an interview. “But I suspect that if they had a flood like this 100 years ago, Calgary wouldn’t be here. It would have been washed away.”

Although 65,000 Calgarians were allowed to return to their homes Sunday afternoon, as many as 24,000 still had no electricity.

Helicopters are flying over the city, beaming images into the basement of Calgary’s Emergency Operations Centre. There, officials from about 60 agencies are monitoring every aspect of the city. At its peak, 200 people were there watching screens, relaying information, making critical calls on evacuations, rescues, gas, power and issues that can only be addressed by officials with the authority to make instant decisions. Information is so sensitive, some of the screens were shut off when reporters were escorted downstairs.

Across the hall, Calgary’s Recovery Operations Centre is in action. Its people may not be able to fix roads yet, but they are ordering materials, getting ready for when they will be heart of the operation.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Bruce Burrell, director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, are prepared to exert power. Mr. Burrell, who serves as the city’s fire chief when it is not in a state of emergency, has the power to enter any building, confiscate assets and force companies to hand over the keys to equipment such as vacuum trucks because the city is in a state of emergency. He can conscript anyone he wants to do whatever he says, as long as it is necessary.

Calgary is getting there. Chinatown, a zone between the Bow and downtown, is dry. Street sweepers are whipping up clouds of dust. Get further south and mud takes over. Pop-up lakes remain all over the city.

Flood water reached at least two tunnels on the south line of Calgary’s light rail system, but officials will have to wait for water to recede before knowing when service will be back. Calgary has contingency plans, including borrowing buses and operators from other municipalities should the city’s downtown open but lack light rail from Calgary’s south.

Calgary Public Library is also doing its bit to help, planning to open all but four branches Monday. Its IT system is down, so librarians are doing it the old-fashioned way – by hand. Mr. Nenshi passed along a message from librarians.

“Maximum 10 books at a time, even for the mayor … Don’t return your books yet. Yes, we will waive your late fines. Since there’s no IT, there’s no point in returning your books.”

“Librarians,” Mr. Nenshi said. “They are very kind to people.”

The librarians’ message went on.

“Every day I have a line that I just enjoy giving you,” Mr. Nenshi said. “And this one is: ‘No fines for books damaged by flood.’ So for those of you who dropped your books in the bathtub – I won’t finish that sentence.”

Follow on Twitter: @CarrieTait

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