Calgary’s city hall was decorated with muddy rain boots and children’s drawings at a commemorative ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the southern Alberta floods – what city officials call Calgary’s worst natural disaster in modern times.
Even though southern Alberta communities including the Blood reserve, Lethbridge and the town of Claresholm were hit by flooding this week, there is palpable relief that the waters didn’t rise to the levels seen in June, 2013. Last year’s disaster in the southern third of the province saw five people killed, Calgary’s downtown core shuttered, thousands of homes and businesses damaged and destroyed, and approximately 100,000 southern Albertans removed from their homes – 56,000 of whom were out of their homes for more than a week. The insurance industry said the floods were Canada’s costliest natural disaster.
At Friday’s ceremony in Calgary, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen sent a video message saying they will never forget the summer of 2013. The Prime Minister said it was not the “dark days” of the flood that stand out, but the efforts of emergency workers who stayed on the job around the clock, and the people who came out en masse to clean out muddy, swamped basements and main floors, move flood debris, and cook for the displaced.
“We may not have been surprised but we were truly humbled and profoundly grateful,” he said of last year’s community outpouring.
Alberta Premier Dave Hancock said the community “went through a lot” in the course of a few days last June, and in the past year. Mr. Hancock also recalled how the Calgary Stampede, the city’s signature event, went ahead with less than two weeks for organizers to clean up after grounds and buildings were submerged by river waters.
“It’s not that the Stampede was the most important thing in peoples’ lives – it was the symbol,” the Premier said. “You did make it happen.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi praised city crews for rebuilding one of the city’s main commuter arteries, Macleod Trail, and restoring the city’s light-rail transit system – including a 100-metre stretch of tracks so dramatically warped by the flood waters it resembled an amusement park roller coaster – within a matter of days. Ten days after the flood June 20th, he said, the city’s entire electrical grid was back up and running.
“The first lesson is just how blessed we are to live in a place where government works,” Mr. Nenshi said.
Mr. Nenshi made a point of recognizing the premier who was not at the ceremony, Alison Redford, who has dropped from public view since her resignation in March amidst controversy over her travel expenses and leadership style. However, Ms. Redford was a near-constant presence in flood-hit communities in June of last year, and the province’s initial response to the disaster has been widely praised, even by opposition parties.
What the Official Opposition Wildrose party does not cheer is the Progressive Conservative government’s decision to shelve a mitigation report, drafted years earlier, that contained recommendations which would have reduced the flood devastation, the government’s decision to grant sole-sourced flood contracts to private firms, and the complexity and sometimes slow pace of the disaster-recovery program meant to compensate homeowners and businesses for uninsurable costs.
Earlier this week, the Globe reported how Alberta’s beleaguered disaster-compensation system triggered warnings from federal auditors well before the worst flood disaster in provincial history. In recent months, homeowners have complained that the redress offered through the disaster-recovery program is too low and will leave their families in deep financial trouble and potentially bankrupt. Others are still waiting for their damage claims to be settled.
Also on Friday, the town of High River – the community worst-hit by flooding – held its own commemoration ceremony.