Skip to main content

Clean-up crews are hard at work getting the Calgary Stampede grounds ready in Calgary, Alta., Monday, June 24, 2013. Calgary Stampede officials say the 2013 event is a go.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The Stampede has always been Calgary's defining event, but now the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth is also the symbol of the city's determination to bounce back from its most damaging flood.

The world-famous Western rodeo festival is set to open Friday – but without the marquee draws of big-name country and rock acts that have added a shot of glamour in recent years.

The rushing, silty water swamped the Stampede grounds and filled the Saddledome arena up to the eighth row of seats. Despite a race to repair the sports and entertainment facility, it is not ready to handle the big, complicated shows by Carly Rae Jepsen, Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks and Kiss that were slated for July 10 through July 13, organizers said.

That was a blow to Stampede officials, who trumpeted on Tuesday that signature events such as the opening parade, big-money rodeo competitions – including the chuckwagon races – and the midway would be ready when the 10-day party starts on Friday.

Politicians and residents have said defiantly that the city's costliest natural disaster, which damaged thousands of homes, will not stop the summer western whoop-up that has come to symbolize its spirit.

"It's certainly disappointing that we couldn't bring these concerts on, but, hey, the city just had a really severe flood, the likes of which we haven't seen perhaps ever," Stampede spokesman Kurt Kadatz said. "So all-in-all, we feel pretty good about what's happening here, and in 48 hours, we're going to be pretty thrilled to open the doors."

Other artists are still scheduled to play smaller venues at the Stampede, including K-OS, Sam Roberts Band and Alberta favourite Corb Lund. But the Saddledome's air conditioning, water and air quality are not yet up to the demands of big-name concerts.

Organizers urged people with tickets to hold onto them, as the shows may be rescheduled. They can also be used for free admission to the Stampede on the concert dates.

Millions of litres of water covered the Stampede grounds nearly two weeks ago as the Elbow River rose above its banks in a flood that soaked much of southern Alberta. The barn area sat in as much as four metres of water, and the rodeo infield had as much as 2.5 metres. It took two days to pump it out, said Warren Connell, vice-president of park development and the man in charge of the facilities.

"It was overwhelming, obviously, to see the track wash away. I've been involved for 30 years in the operations of the organization. I believe in '74, when the building was constructed, it took four months to build the track," Mr. Connell said. "We were given 10 days, basically."

The dirt track on which the cowboys, wagons and horses will thunder in the thrilling and sometimes controversial chuckwagon races was rebuilt from scratch after silt and debris were scraped away. It is in its best-ever condition, Mr. Connell said.

Across the grounds on Tuesday, preparations were in high gear, as they would be in any year a few days before opening. Midway rides were being assembled and crews tested the sound system for the nightly grandstand show. Main areas had few outward signs of flood damage.

Ticket sales are above those of 2011, but below the numbers in 2012, the Stampede's centennial, said Bob Thompson, president of the Stampede board.

Mr. Thompson said the board's cleanup and repair bill will be in the millions of dollars, although it has yet to be tallied. "Our concern was getting this show put on, and then we were committed to put up whatever resources it took to get us to this point," he said.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced on Tuesday that a busy light rail transit between city hall downtown and the south of the city will reopen on Wednesday morning, thanks to the hard work of municipal employees.

City-wide, officials are adding up the costs of the catastrophe. The city pegged flood damage to its facilities at $256.5-million. That includes $50-million for the hard-hit Calgary Zoo – from which dozens of animals were evacuated. The zoo also estimates it will lose at least $10-million in summer revenues, half of that in July.

Some exhibits will re-open as of July 31, but Canada's second largest zoo will not be fully operational until late November.

Outside Calgary, some Albertans are angry at having to sign waivers to return to their flooded homes after being kept out for more than a week for safety reasons.

Evacuees began returning to the badly damaged town of High River, Alta., on Saturday, but before they were given their authorized passes, they were presented with a waiver from the municipality.

"My question is, if we had to sign a waiver, why weren't we allowed to sign a waiver 10 days ago to get in here and try to save our homes and property?" Floyd Langenhoff asked on Tuesday.

Disaster officials say the waivers are as much a warning as legal instruments.

With reports from Kelly Cryderman and The Canadian Press