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floods of 2013
The swollen Bow River winds through the downtown core of Calgary on June 23, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

At a restoration company in Calgary’s northeast, just days after the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, a roomful of dishevelled strangers mustered like army recruits waiting for deployment. What media were calling the flood of the century had come and, for the most part, gone, leaving behind furious dirt devils, silt now forming into clay along city streets, and misery.

The tide of sewer backup in homes had begun to recede, clumping rock-hard turds in the most impossible-to-reach areas under stairs, on closet walls, in crawlspaces. Companies specializing in flood, fire, asbestos and mould cleanup were calling all hands on deck, themselves now flooded with more work than they could handle.

I was out of work, having just returned from a trip overseas, and the previous night I had made a shortlist of possible temporary jobs. Even before submitting my second application online, I received a reply to the first: “Thank you for your interest to help clean up Calgary. Please come to our Calgary north branch for an orientation tomorrow at 7 a.m. Bring your SIN card, banking information and photo ID.”

And so, not 10 hours later, on the morning of June 25, 2013, I found myself surveying the mix of sleepy-eyed, otherwise unemployable marginalia, many doubled over scattered plastic tables, who were now tasked with the craptacular job of disposing of days-old sewage from every cranny of Calgarians’ cherished, gutted homes – a fecal workload that nature had evacuated from the guts of the city, and that $1.7-billion in home-insurance claims now commanded to be cleansed. From what I could ascertain, many were your average Craigslist bottom-feeders lured by Internet ads calling for “flood specialists – $17/hour.” For others, it was a parole placement. Still others, like me, had last night just decided: What the hell.

Every summer, the Banff Centre – the arts, culture and education incubator – offers a handful of established non-fiction writers the opportunity to spend a month-long residency developing a feature story under the guidance of faculty mentors. The program encourages writers to explore new ideas in journalism and to experiment with creating a piece that might otherwise be difficult to complete. This is part of an occasional series in which The Globe and Mail is publishing a selection of those stories.

An enhanced satellite view of the extent of the 2013 flooding in Calgary. (Swiss Re)

Beginning June 19, rain clouds hung stubbornly over the mountains west of Calgary for 40 hours, releasing an inland sea’s worth of water and turning a metre of mountain snowpack into pounding cascades. The still-frozen soil was absorbing little of what fell.

A 100-kilometre-wide circumference of semi-arid prairie surrounds Calgary and forms a natural catchment of four rivers and countless creeks. To the west, high on the Continental Divide at the Alberta-B.C. border, the headwaters of the South Saskatchewan River Basin begin their ever-descending journey toward the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Glacial melt spills off the Rocky Mountain spine, streams through foothills, and collects in either the Highwood, Sheep, Elbow or Bow.

The last of those rivers, not unlike the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs parallel to it, is an expressway of sorts.

The Bow is the fastest, most direct course from the Rockies to, and through, Calgary. Within 24 hours of the first pelting raindrops, the Bow and its tributaries were gushing through Banff, Canmore, Bragg Creek and Cochrane, all to the west of Calgary, and High River to its south, forcing – along with the devastation in Calgary itself – the evacuation of 10,000 homes, displacing 100,000 people, warranting 32 municipal states of emergency, and costing some $6-billion in damage. A hydrographic map of Southern Alberta looks like the capillary system of a near-God-sized hand. It is, and has been since humans first inhabited the Earth, a floodplain.

The restoration company's warehouse. Calgarians' soggy belongings were put in 10-foot-by-10-foot-by-10-foot salvage crates. (Peter Worden)

Our company’s headquarters was a massive operation: dispatch centre, cleaning stations, storage for air blowers and dehumidifiers, a wash bay with a sluice grate in the floor for fecal-sludge storage.

But its chief function was as warehouse of salvageable home furnishings, kind of like a reverse Ikea, where crap is put back onto shelves. Furniture, clothing, family albums and mementos were all compressed into endless rows of 10-foot-by-10-foot-by-10-foot white wooden cubes. Those salvage crates were then stacked three high and three wide, like great Rubik’s Cubes of the human condition. A painted walking path snaked its way around the warehouse floor. With all the commotion and wafting exhaust, the place had the atmosphere of a shantytown, its giant cubes vacant of souls but not their detritus and sometimes not their scents.

All those belongings piled in all those crates were a compaction of time and personhood. Wedding pictures. Bibles. Diaries. The things people make that make people. In one crate sat an Alex Janvier print – a wispy, dreamy work in which, one morning, I found myself lost. Its title: Storage in an Unknown Depth.

Other cubes contained ugly rugs, ugly lamps, ugly wedding dresses, and macramé plant holders, which are always ugly. Working to restore them to their preflood glory were small clusters of staff who had sorted naturally into linguistic groups. Each commanded a table according to its specialty, but originally according to people’s ability to converse with one another. The Latina women cleaned endless racks of papers and photographs. The Caribbean staff laundered linens, clothing and upholstery. The Filipinas had an assembly line of large sinks for scrubbing household miscellany.

Among the contents of one crate was the journal of a woman from High River and love letters she shared with her husband. The Latinas sterilized the woman’s soiled papers by dipping them in ozone water and blasting them under radioactive UV and infrared lights. They then placed them gingerly on racks in a giant dehumidifier. They also read them religiously. We entitled the sprawling collection of love letters 50 Shades of Grey Water.

A Humvee drives through a flooded Calgary street on June 21, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

It wasn’t long before I felt almost born to be a foul-mouthed, shit-shovelling bastard. Each morning I judged the wearability of socks by their crustiness – a little bit was acceptable – and was out the door before 6 a.m., no shower.

It was rewarding to begin a morning ankle-deep in muck, and leave it scraped clean by nightfall. When specks of mud – let’s just call it mud – invariably splashed on my face, I paid them no more attention than I would a mosquito. I stopped caring that when I ate, my hands were never fully scrubbed clean.

I also gained a proud reputation for hosing elaborate, large-scale murals on basement walls. It was important to keep mentally stimulated. As I toiled in people’s increasingly dank homes, craning to access every nook, I pretended I was doing a gym workout crossed with hot yoga crossed with a steam bath. As a journalist sometimes endearingly and sometimes derogatorily considered a muckraker, it felt good to physically and literally rake muck.

Then and now

A year after the Alberta floods, photojournalist John Lehmann revisited some of the province's hardest-hit areas. See what a difference a year makes. Full gallery here

With accrued sky’s-the-limit time-and-a-half overtime, hours were ungodly to ungodly. At the very least we went 7 to 7, seven days a week. I didn’t punch out until after 1 a.m. on my first shift. Because I was due back in a few hours, I was told to simply take the truck home. That I was allowed to drive off into the night with expensive equipment after a single shift, when barely anyone even knew my name, spoke to the boon of work ahead.

So did the remarks of Momar, my middle-aged but young-at-heart and affable foreman. He was from a small city that he said I would never have heard of in Pakistan, and had been in the disaster business for seven years. All those years, he’d been patiently waiting for a catastrophe like this.

“On one side, it’s very sad. But if you look at the other side, it helps a lot of people,” he pointed out matter-of-factly my first day on the job. His take on the economics of natural disasters brought to mind the bad luck of my forest-firefighter friend, who, with all the rain that summer, was effectively unemployed.

Mo repaid the river with a form of religious reverence, thanking it aloud as we drove by its busted banks – his gratitude a confirmation of Henry Miller’s observation that a man can get to love shit if his livelihood depends on it.

As a journalist sometimes endearingly and sometimes derogatorily considered a muckraker, it felt good to physically and literally rake muck.

Like most modern cities, Calgary uses a dual waste-water system. One part of it diverts storm water away from homes and businesses and into city reservoirs before sending it on its way to the ocean. The other expels sanitary water from where people live and work, via treatment plants. Both are gravity-fed, except in low-lying areas, where sanitary mainlines are aided by lift stations that pump sewage up to treatment plants. In the storm-water part of the system, ICDs – inlet control devices – are designed to “pond” water in streets in the event of an extra-heavy downpour. Without the slow-release safeguard to the main, 100-kilogram manhole covers can pop like beer caps.

The two subcity systems normally function independently. But June, 2013, was an exception. Both were inundated. By the time the Bow and Elbow overflowed their banks, Calgary’s storm system was at capacity. Pools of water in the streets shorted out the sanitary system’s electrical lift stations. Below ground, the 12-inch trunk lines containing human waste regurgitated up the four-inch drains of thousands of homes.

In fact, Calgary was devastated by two interrelated but distinct floods over those two days in June. One was the direct overland result of quick-melting Rockies snowpack and prolonged rainfall. The other was the subsequent underground fallout from failed sewage pump stations, 12 of them across the city.


From the archives: Alberta residents capture devastation caused by flooding. Watch here

Insurance companies also viewed the flood as two separate entities. Overland flooding isn’t covered by Canadian insurance policies – “That shit goes back to Macdonald,” a co-worker casually informed me. John A. wasn’t just Canada’s first prime minister; he was also the first president of Manufacturers Life Insurance (now Manulife Financial), which helped to put in place our nascent country’s rules for newcomers settling on floodplains, and insurers’ exculpation from paying for it if they did.

Overland flooding doesn’t lend itself to the economics of insurance, as it inherently leads to “high adverse selection,” in Insurance Bureau of Canada lingo. In other words, there’s too much risk, what with decades-old civic infrastructure, obsolete building codes, ineffective land-use planning and Canada’s time-honoured dearth of flood-hazard maps. As the personification of those arcane insurance rules, I mucked around solely in insurance – that is, sewer-backup – claims.

Bowing to the insurance industry’s logic, battle lines were drawn – often even within a single home or business: scored across drywall in properties hit by both overland and sewer backup. Marked with X-Acto knives, those lines arbitrarily delineated which repairs were covered by insurance and which were not. As unsparing as the tools that carved them, they demarcated an explicable and insurable municipal-infrastructure failure from an inexplicable, uninsurable act of God.

A manhole cover in Calgary’s Mission neighbourhood bubbles over with water on June 21, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

When sewage gurgles up a drainpipe and across a basement floor, a city-wide sewer system whose vast operations you don’t normally catch more than a glimpse or whiff of becomes part of your home. That discharge quickly seeps into subfloors and wicks upward into drywall like a cookie dipped in tea.

For all the lowliness of our station, Mo and I were frequently received as personal household saviours. I’ll give us this much: We were confident and thorough. At each job site, we began by hermetically sealing off the property’s contaminated segments from the uncontaminated ones, to prevent mould from spreading any farther. Our job required a full complement of pressure washers, chemicals such as Benefect and Sporicidin, Shop-Vacs, two-inch hoses, truck mounts with 100-litre extraction tanks, blowers, de-hu’s and a full wardrobe of protective gear (rubber boots, safety glasses, mask and filters) that allowed us to remove mould without risking respiratory failure on our part, years down the road.

(Peter Worden)

On Elbow Drive, a billboard at the Glenmore Temple read: FAITH IN THE STORMS OF LIFE. It seemed a necessary note of encouragement one day as we barrelled by on our way to High River.

Forty kilometres south of Calgary, the town of 13,000 was hit the worst of any municipality in the province. At its peak flooding, the Highwood River, a tributary of the Bow that cuts through High River, rushed at 50 times its normal flow rate. Even as July wound to its close, water was still lapping at the base of the town bridge, which usually hung a good leap above the surface of the river. The Highwood’s rush washed soil out beneath the bridge’s train tracks and forced them over like a wrung spine. A proud, national steel-and-wood symbol of mandated orderliness upon disorder now lay corkscrewed and of no use.

Across High River, knee-high water sat in homes for up to 25 days. Trailer work camps popped up like fairy rings. Fields at the edge of town became dumping zones for fridges, many holding rotted food. Porta Potties dotted street corners.

There seemed endless silt to pressure-wash away. Teams of 20 or 30 of us would tackle a section of neighbourhood with cleaning and drying equipment, shouting, “Clear!” only half-jokingly to the foreman as we moved militarily, door to door. In the weeks following the flood, it hailed twice. One day around suppertime, a black sky swirled overhead and a tornado warning came over the radio. As the foreman ordered us to quickly pack up, a co-worker said, to no one in particular, “Flood, hail, tornadoes – what did these people do?”

Residents of Elbow Park struggle against the rushing flood waters in Calgary on June 22, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

As long as Calgary has been Calgary, it has received sporadic but certain influxes of two things: water and people. In the last 40 years alone, the city’s population has grown from around 450,000 to over one million.

Whether floods of people or water, boom times anywhere have never failed to inspire shoddy home-building and repairs. Job sites intrigued me for that very reason. It felt wrongly good to be privy to what a hotel or restaurant looked like naked. Like a tree’s rings, a building’s guts tell stories. What they tell usually correlates to a particular date. In homes built in the 1980s, for example, we sometimes stumbled on asbestos, even though it had been officially banned by then. And we uncovered pre-existing mould in homes that were recently renovated, usually in 2005 – the city’s last big flood.

Weeks after the flood, subeconomies of shady home renovations spread mycologically in and around the flood zone, like mould after a good soaking. Some fly-by-night contractors proved such an immediate concern that City Hall offered homeowners a verification service for business licences. But guys I worked with – and they were almost always guys – always knew a carpenter, plasterer, electrician or plumber who could circumvent insurers to help homeowners get the job done without their premiums rising. Some co-workers had their own tools and were that guy.


From the archives: How badly did one Canadian insurer get hit by the summer of 2013's weather disasters? Watch here

Mo and I spent hundreds of hours driving, and he liked to pass the time by telling me about the nefarious things he had seen during his decades in the trade. “They’ll know in 30 years,” he said to me as we made our first of a dozen rounds one day, “that Calgary had a flood when they look, you know, medically at people.”

His reasoning? If not contained and removed within 72 hours, mould has a good chance of spreading throughout a place breached by water. In the chaotic wake of the worst flooding, well-intentioned volunteers had torn up carpet and insulation already peppered with mould, and then traipsed through the houses in which they were volunteering – and through similar homes on cleanup sites across Calgary. Meanwhile, neighbours sharing giant industrial air blowers, whose job was to dry out sodden abodes, spread mould down the block. Mo and I often mulled what we referred to as the eco-echo – the multitude of adverse consequences to people’s homes and health in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. All of it spawned first by the flood, then by benign ignorance.

One afternoon, I made the acquaintance of a man holding his daughter in a rented basement apartment doomed by mould. He had shoved all their dampened belongings into one corner. The fridge undercarriage and the legs of tables, chairs and couches were shrouded at the heels with fungal stain. Their sublevel dwelling was utterly contaminated: carpet, walls, furniture and (probably, by now) lungs. Mo had a difficult time explaining to the father that renters’ insurance would not foot the bill for the damage. There was nothing more we could do.

Licensing laws demanded the destruction of entire liquor inventories after the flood. (Peter Worden)

I had tales for Mo, too. One day, I was working with another crew on a full internal demolition of a liquor store. Sewage and shattered bottles of beer and wine had lain all over the ground without refrigeration for many days. It was like a clogged frat toilet the morning after a keg party multiplied by 100 then smashed with a sledgehammer. The place was littered with broken glass in black muck steaming in the summer heat. We took endless hours cracking every last six-pack of cans – pscht!-pscht!-pscht!-pscht!-pscht!-pscht! – and bottles, pouring them into a garbage bin and then repeatedly dragging the bin to the bathroom to tip its contents down the toilet.

Top-shelf whiskies that’d never brushed a lick of floodwater had to go, too: Alberta retail licences do not allow for the resale of flood-affected material. As a “waste not, want not” kind of person, it panged me in a place I didn’t know I had for liquor. We were in unbreathable Tyvek suits and sweaty respirators on a sweltering day and not allowed even one of the hundreds of beers and shots literally going down the shitter. It made for strange and unusual punishment of the Shawshank Redemption variety. I felt like the jailbreak film’s Andy Dufresne, who bartered with his most brutal guard for a cold beer after tarring the prison roof. And so I approached our site manager with an idea: We had the means to hose off a couple of bottles of whatever – how about putting it on ice for the end of the shift? No surprise, she denied the modest request, and I went back to mumbling my sombre version of Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Later, relieving myself by the back door, I saw someone had taken matters into their own hands. Behind a steel waste container was a small stockpile of Scotch bottles in cylindrical containers stacked discreetly like cordwood awaiting pick-up after our shift.

Calgarians look over their flooded city of Calgary from Crescent Heights on June 22, 2013. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Asbestos turned up in homes and products where it was positively, 110-per-cent believed there was none. Momar had a good eye for it. He often took samples to send to base for testing. And he instilled in me an equal caution and determination to suss it out wherever we worked. The once-popular building material – its name means “inextinguishable” in Greek – infamously emits microscopic fibres of mineral silicates, which, when inhaled, slowly turn the lung “from a sponge to a suet pudding,” as Dr. Richard Gordon puts it in Great Medical Disasters.

Although Canada, home to some of the world’s largest asbestos mines, had banned its use domestically in 1978, for years after, asbestos found its way into such innocuous construction staples as drywall tape. During Calgary’s boom decade of the eighties, Mo told me, unlicensed contractors continued to use materials made with it. “It’s a huge problem in certain neighbourhoods,” he warned me, as we left a site he suspected was rife with the stuff. “You always have to be careful.”

Meanwhile, broken rules of the past seemed to overlap with broken rules of the present. On busy days, some crews neglected the proper evacuation of holding tanks brimming with the day’s slurped-up sewage. Such effluent should have been released into a fecal-sludge containment tank at the warehouse. But our trucks carried tanks big enough for only one job, sometimes not even. When tired of driving across the city, my fellow muckrakers would occasionally hunt out a secluded alley backing onto the Elbow River. Mo did everything above board, but other crews were fond of this tactic. Someone would stand lookout, often within spitting distance of million-dollar mansions, while the sewer hose was casually dangled over the riverbank.

Whether floods of people or water, boom times anywhere have never failed to inspire shoddy home-building and repairs. Job sites intrigued me for that very reason.

I met Bob one hot afternoon as we took turns dumping wheelbarrows of his home’s wreckage at the curb. In a way, he said, the flood was an atmospheric blessing in disguise. Before the devastation, he’d been under a cloud of depression and was on leave from his legal career. But the flood mysteriously busted him from that fog. The duty to rebuild, he explained, provided him with the essentials of happiness – something to do, and something to hope for.

By contrast, he pointed to his next-door neighbour, a professor at the University of Calgary. The man was seen sobbing on his front balcony days after the flood, head in his hands. Bob said the professor’s wife was ill and the two had recently purchased a new home – but did not have the money to pay for it until their current house sold. The man honestly thought the stress would kill his wife.

Farther down the Elbow River was an oil executive for whom money was no object. He had recently bought a new mansion and, after the flood, hired a private firm to construct a six-figure, watertight metal wall three metres tall and more than four metres below ground. Twenty workers took two weeks to construct the Maginot Line of flood barricades around the perimeter of his property. It brought to mind Thoreau’s observation from more than a century and a half ago. Our houses, he wrote, “are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.”

Calgary and the Bow River on June 4, 2014, almost a year after the flood. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

In 1915, a flood washed out Calgary’s Centre Street bridge. One hundred Junes later, the province is finally heeding a damage-mitigation strategy, which former Highwood MLA George Groeneveld first spearheaded after the flood of 2005. Of its 18 recommendations, the most important is: Do not build on a floodplain. The 2013 Flood Recovery and Reconstruction Act reinforces that commitment. What it cannot change is what is already built: Much of downtown Calgary and its newly gentrified east side is, in effect, a flood zone.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of the 254 people whose homes the province offered to buy out at tax-assessment value have actually relocated. (Those who stayed won’t get a dollar of bailout in the event of a future flood.) In High River, as in Calgary, homeowners, if they didn’t move away altogether, have now returned. Some stores have closed, but most are back to business as usual.

In Calgary, all the sewage may be slurped up and the work camps dismantled, but roughly half of the city’s 200 recovery and preparation projects are yet to be completed. Engineers have focused on “high-priority mitigation areas” – dredging river bottoms, building earthen berms, widening and reinforcing riversides with rock. An expert panel on flood mitigation is also batting around larger-scale, longer-term projects, doing feasibility studies on two diversion routes and on whether to dredge the Glenmore Reservoir. The idea is to make Calgary more resilient to future disasters, not just relatively nimble at recovering from them.

What was described by many as the flood of the century, an almost one-off freak of nature, was, statistically speaking, a once-in-45-years flood. When (not if) another flood comes, Calgary city workers now have military-like protocols to follow: Stem the flow using the Glenmore Reservoir; prevent river water from entering sewer systems; staff temporary lift stations; deploy barriers; give people up-to-the-minute information.

As spring passes into summer, this part of the province is once more bracing for its annual two-month period of high precipitation. The city has a flood monitoring body that now updates the website and notifies the public of the river levels on the Bow and Elbow, and snowpack – to date they are all within normal levels. Reservoirs are down. Roadside ticker tapes flash messages to be flood-aware. Low oil prices and their economic ripples mean that many people have other crises to worry about – the mountain snowpack and flow rates of the Elbow and Bow are, after all, well within range.

But there is an abundance of caution. A steady rainfall, we all know now, can change everything in a flash.

Peter Worden lives in Nanton, Alta., where he publishes a miniature newspaper, The Nanton Experiment, out of an old schoolhouse. He was most recently gainfully employed as a reporter with the CBC in Iqaluit, where he worked until last month.