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An intersection under water in High River, Alberta on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The town was under mandatory evacuation this morning after they declared a state of emergency at 9:20 a.m. and anyone who lived near a river, creek or stream was asked to leave. Recently heavy rains caused the river to break the banks which runs right through town.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

As many as 7,000 people were ordered to leave their low-lying homes in Calgary on Thursday as fast-rising rivers triggered the city's first state of emergency declaration in nine decades.

Heavy rainfall across southern Alberta swelled the Elbow and Bow rivers, the city's major waterways, which prompted officials to order residents from six neighbourhoods to leave their homes for up to 72 hours.

Water levels on the Elbow could be double those of the last large floods in 2005, said Dan Limacher, Calgary's director of water services.

Crews rushed to place sandbags along major thoroughfares close to the rivers and the city began shutting down roads and bridges while telling affected residents to leave work early to prepare to evacuate.

"It's actually one of the most significant flood events this city has ever experienced," alderman John Mar said in an interview. "This is a state of emergency, the first in this municipality since the 1920s."

"We've declared a local state of emergency in Calgary," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi following a lunchtime speech in Toronto before getting on a plane back to Alberta. "We suspect that the flow rate of the Bow and Elbow rivers will be higher than during the floods of 2005. We've got lots of people out there sandbagging and berming. We need the assistance of the community in this, both in staying away from the river banks and assisting where they can with their neighbours. If you don't live near the river and you can offer a place to stay for friends and family, that would be a very good thing."

Mr. Nenshi stressed the importance for residents to follow the emergency instructions. "They may sound severe, but it is for everyone's safety. We need to make sure everyone is safe and healthy through this," he said.

With a file from Elizabeth Church