At the peak of the Elbow River’s rise, just 14 days before the scheduled start of the 101st edition of the Calgary Stampede, Bob Thompson, its president, stood in the rain on Scotsman’s Hill, just east of the park, astonished at the devastation. The river encircles much of the Stampede grounds like a horseshoe, and when it overflowed its banks, it sent a deluge of brown, silty water straight across the grounds to swamp horse barns, the famous chuckwagon racetrack, rodeo infield, grandstand and Saddledome arena.
Despite the obvious damage, the prospect of cancelling the Stampede wasn’t on Mr. Thompson’s mind. Instead, he and his staff began to plot how Calgary’s signature event could proceed against all odds. It opened Friday with a parade through streets that were flooded until days ago and has already become a symbol not only of Calgary’s frontier roots but of its resilience in the face of crisis and, for many, a badly needed respite.
“We have a can-do attitude,” Mr. Thompson said. “We find it very difficult to quit things rather than make things happen. It’s just not in our genetic makeup.”
In the end, it required at least as much nurture as nature.
To get the $100-million-plus Stampede up and running on time, Mr. Thompson and his staff set up a war room on high ground, marshalled a force of 900 workers from five companies across North America, deployed 220 dump trucks, scraped up and removed tens of thousands of metres of contaminated soil, and fixed dozens of flooded facilities.
The Stampede spent what it had to get cleaned up and repaired on the tightest of schedules – and planned to deal with extra costs, estimated in million of dollars, later. It sought no extra money from its big-name corporate sponsors.
While the Stampede struggled to rebuild in fast motion, many of its people also had to deal with flood damage to their own homes, including Vern Kimball, its CEO. “It’s been inspirational,” he said of Calgarians’ extraordinary will to help rebuild their city and their show. “Everybody has pitched in.”
Senior Stampede officials, including Mr. Thompson and vice-presidents Warren Connell, the facilities boss, and Paul Rosenberg, in charge of programming, assembled their situation room on the top floor of a maintenance building. On the walls, they hung white boards that they quickly covered with writing about the problems facing the facilities, the priorities for fixing them and other details.
There, energy levels ran high. It was quickly decided that early priorities included getting the rodeo and chuckwagon surfaces back in shape, as well as the 17,000-seat grandstand, without which there could be no spectators for the $2-million competition.
“We’d meet twice a day with all senior staff. Everyone was responsible for their own area … we reported back morning and night,” said Keith Marrington, the Stampede’s director of the rodeo and chuckwagons. “We assessed each building and each program, and the level of jeopardy they were in.”
After water receded in the infield and chuckwagon racetrack, the heart of the Stampede, muddied layers of gravel and holes 11/2 metres deep remained. Although the Stampede had just spent more than $500,000 to rebuild and resurface the track in April – a three-week job – Mr. Marrington knew they had to start over.
This time, the just over one-kilometre track was rebuilt in less than a week. That meant extracting 40-million kilograms of dirt, and returning the same amount of new material. Road closings due to a CP Rail train derailment last week stopped the trucks for 15 precious hours. In the end, the arrival of the chuckwagon teams was delayed by only two days.
“The challenge for us was the clock and the weather,” said Mr. Marrington, who likened the scene to a war zone.
Each problem was tackled individually. And on a daily basis, the board was updated as power was restored in one damaged building, or the air quality improved in another.
“We approached it as: full-speed ahead unless something actually forces us to stop. There was not that central key point of go or no-go,” Mr. Thompson said. “It was, ‘Let’s keep peeling the onion back and see if anything stops us.’ And once we got the momentum and the adrenalin levels were running high, then we began to push even harder and harder.”
Not everything was a success.
Days before opening, the Stampede announced that the Saddledome, home to NHL’s Calgary Flames, was still far too damaged after being flooded to the eighth row of seats to handle concerts by Carly Rae Jepsen, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Kiss. The basement of the Big Four exhibition building on the western edge of the park, normally an eating area, is also still off-limits. “We just couldn’t get the water out of there because it kept seeping in through the wall through the [adjacent light-rail transit] line,” Mr. Marrington said.
Still, all of the rodeo competitions and midway rides are open for the 10-day event, and it takes close examination to see signs that much of the 2,033-acre park was submerged, up to 2.5 metres in some areas.
Crucially, organizers promised Mayor Naheed Nenshi that they would put no more strain on a city struggling to deal with ruined homes, a hobbled transportation network and more than 100,000 displaced residents.
Mr. Nenshi is an unabashed Stampede fan, relishing the opportunity to ride a horse called Garfield in the opening parade for the third year in a row, wearing cowboy hat and boots and eating mini doughnuts on the midway.
The popular mayor and former academic can also lecture at length about its importance to the local economy, contributing an estimated $190-million annually, and its psyche. But during the disaster, the city’s worst, he had to attend to more serious matters.
“I actually made it very clear to the Stampede very early on that, although we wished them well and wanted them to succeed, the city’s resources needed to be focused on getting people back home and on ensuring safety, and if there’s any problem with safety that we weren’t interested in moving forward with the Stampede. They assured me that there would not be,” Mr. Nenshi said.
“They actually made no special pull whatsoever on the city’s resources. Absolutely none. In fact, if you ask them they would say that they improved so quickly that they were able to free up earth-moving equipment and stuff like that in time for that equipment to be able to be deployed in other neighbourhoods, which I think is great.”
Hundreds of Stampede volunteers were not allowed on site while contractors were carrying out the massive cleanup and repair effort. Instead, many devoted efforts to cleaning out houses in hard-hit neighbourhoods, feeding troops on flood duty in Canmore, Alta., and putting on a Stampede breakfast at the flood-ravaged Siksika First Nation, east of Calgary.
Keith Waldron, an official with the committee that operates caravans – mobile units that provide free pancake, sausage and juice breakfasts to thousands through the Stampede – said he was able to get the four flapjack “batter” trucks to higher ground hours before the flood waters hit.
At the parade on Friday, there was no question of the effort to deliver a Stampede despite the city’s struggles.
“If there’s hurdles you got to overcome, then you just do it,” Calgary plumber Grant Kuntz said.
“It’s unfortunate for what happened in communities around Calgary, and Calgary. But you’ve got to just party when the time is to party. You have to take a break, and celebrate life.”