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Calgary Stampede to go on ‘come hell or high water,’ president vows

The heavily damaged Calgary Stampede grounds in downtown Calgary which has lost most of its power and could be sometime before electricity is restored June 23, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Millions of litres of water have been pumped from buildings, the infield and the chuckwagon racetrack of the Stampede grounds. What's been revealed is not just the mud and damage from the biggest flood in Alberta's history, but one of the biggest logistical challenges for the 101-year-old Calgary institution.

Throughout the state of emergency that began last Thursday, Mayor Naheed Nenshi and other city officials insisted the Stampede would go ahead. The Elbow River receded over the weekend, and now the grounds are a hive of trucks and workers scraping mud from the tarmac. Rooms are getting drained and dried, buildings are being disinfected and a team is working to replace the clay base of the racetrack.

Military vehicles still roam Calgary streets and much of the downtown is without power. In addition, many homeowners are returning home to muddied and wet basements and sometimes even main floors. But Stampede officials say this year's version of the event scheduled to go ahead on July 5 will be a "beacon of light" for those affected by the floods – and as big as ever.

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"Throughout our entire history, we have never cancelled a show, despite two wars and a Great Depression," Stampede president Bob Thompson said Monday on Scotsman's Hill, a bluff overlooking the expansive Stampede grounds.

"We will be hosting the greatest outdoor show on earth, come hell or high water."

Stampede officials say they will run a "concentrated" version of the setup, compressing what is usually three weeks of work into about 10 days. Around 300 staff and some of the 2,400 volunteers involved in the annual event, many of whom have already been volunteering to help clean up after the floods across southern Alberta, will work around the clock.

"It's not just about Stampede, it's about Calgary," said Stampede volunteer Reg Tiangha, 31.

The parade on the first day of the festivities might take an altered route but Stampede chief executive Vern Kimball said the Stampede itself will be a pleasant distraction for southern Albertans after the massive flooding. "Many of our employees and volunteers have flooded basements and flooded homes, including mine," Mr. Kimball told reporters. "Visitors will see the resiliency of Calgarians first hand."

The highly organized Stampede committee, the locus of Calgary's volunteer power – where many of the city's upwardly mobile vie for plum positions – has a way of getting things done. Mr. Kimball said the Stampede is using its own volunteers, workers and tradespeople for the cleanup, and is not a drain on other resources. He also argued airlines, Calgary hotels and the city's tourism industry rely on visitors from out of town travelling to the Stampede. And the Stampede still managed to sell tickets, even though their phone lines were down on the weekend.

But the location of the Stampede, in relation to the flood damage, is especially precarious. Nearby, the Scotiabank Saddledome was flooded up to the 8th row. A portion of a main Calgary thoroughfare adjacent to the Stampede grounds, Macleod Trail, crumbled into a muddy hole, and a nearby section of light-rail transit track moved by powerful flood waters from the Elbow River resembles a roller coaster.

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Stampede leaders said Monday they believe the Saddledome will be ready for the Stampede. And while city officials have taken pains to say the Stampede isn't receiving any special treatment, the head of Calgary's transit system said the Macleod Trail section will be fixed by late Tuesday, and the light-rail section, one of the busiest in the city, should be fixed before the Stampede starts. "We're striving to be ready for Stampede," Calgary Transit director Doug Morgan said.

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