Photos by Anne Garth.
When I woke up in downtown Calgary on Friday morning, I was in the middle of the evacuation zone in an apartment building with no electricity. After grabbing our precious smartphones, my friends and I tried to make sense of exactly what was happening. We had all passed out the night before, two days into Calgary’s foremost indie music festival, Sled Island, and we’d figured all the talk of major flooding was just panic-induced hysteria. This is Calgary after all, where it only rains for about ten days a year and people hide inside like it might cause them to melt.
Sure, we knew that surrounding towns were facing emergency evacuations and that massive mudslides had washed out the Trans Canada highway, leaving bands on their way to play Sled Island stranded in Banff. But even so, we weren’t particularly worried. Never in our lifetimes had this semi-arid prairie metropolis ever come close to being in the kind of peril smaller Alberta towns were now experiencing. That said, as news started pouring in from the various corners of social media, we realized we were sitting in the middle of a bonafide natural disaster.
To give a little context here, Calgary sits on the cusp of the Foothills leading to the Rocky Mountains. Two major rivers—the Elbow and the Bow—wind east from the Rockies through the city, encircling most inner city neighborhoods and downtown destinations. The Elbow River leads into a reservoir that provides Calgary’s drinking water. In the last week, southern Alberta experienced record rainfall that in turn escalated a larger than usual spring run off of snow high up in the Rocky Mountains. All this extra water went straight into Calgary’s two rivers, causing them to swell to unprecedented levels, essentially turning large portions of Calgary into a nightmare-ish water park.
The more we learned, the more surreal it seemed. We heard a rumor that the Calgary Zoo, for example, was being forced to evacuate large animals to cells in the downtown courthouse. The Saddledome—which is exactly what it sounds like, a giant indoor arena in the shape of a saddle—was so flooded that if a hockey player walked onto the “ice” right now, he would be totally under water. By Friday afternoon 75,000 Calgarians had been forced from their homes by mandatory evacuations and by Saturday afternoon, 30,000 people were without power. We kept getting texts from friends saying that they were safe, but were just trying to get across the lake. I kept thinking,There isn’t a lake in Calgary.
From where we were located, you couldn’t really tell the breadth of the destruction, other than the fact that downtown was completely deserted, all the traffic lights were out and it was raining like crazy. It’s a strange feeling being in the middle of a natural disaster and realizing there isn’t much you can do except travel towards high ground. Police, firefighters, and the army were being brought in to monitor the flood so things did seem to be under control, given the circumstances. With no cable and my cell phone battery on low, we cautiously ventured out to get a better idea of what mother nature had decided to throw at us.
We followed the Bow River along the northeastern side of downtown, curving towards Chinatown, and then walked south along the border of the flood through evacuated neighborhoods as close to the damage as we could manage. The sheer volume of water was shocking. Bridges that had always stood high above the Bow River were now nearly submerged, as were underpasses, parks, and parking lots. A cop from Edmonton gave us a kindly but extremely unsettling warning to keep away from the flooded streets because there was a possibility that manholes were coming loose and, “you don’t want to get hit by an 80 pound manhole, that’s for sure.”
Flying manholes aside, the vibe was surprisingly mellow. As we walked, three guys in full rain gear riding mountain bikes darted past us, driving through waist-deep water. In classic Calgary style, every ten minutes there was a giant truck or Hummer seemingly joy-riding through the water.
Nothing illustrated heartiness of Calgarians better than the makeshift Sled Island (aptly re-dubbed by some as Flood Island) that began to emerge all over the city by Friday afternoon. Since nearly every venue in Calgary had been shut down by the flooding and power outages, Sled Island was forced to cancel the remaining three days of the festival that were supposed to see the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Thee Oh Sees, and Explosions in the Sky take to the stage. In its stead, locals offered up their houses to any remaining bands who hadn’t fled the city and Friday and Saturday had me weaving around flooded communities to some of the best house shows I have ever seen. Every show was packed with hundreds of people and featured bands like the Beets, the Nymphets, Crosss, and Cousins.
Point being, Calgary is badass. In my experience, no one has been whining about losing their possessions or homes. Instead, everyone has taken a deep breath, made sure all our friends and family are okay, rescued all the cats and dogs, and then put on a fucking music festival in their backyards and basements. By Sunday afternoon, the water had begun to very slowly recede and 65,000 Calgarians have been allowed to re-enter their communities. The cleanup from this will be lengthy and costly, but I know there will be more than enough citizens to lend a hand.
When it snowed too hard in Toronto they called in the army. When it floods in Calgary, we grab a beer and a tarp and have a party. Just sayin.
Follow Grace on Twitter: @GraceLisaScott
To see more photos of the flooding in Calgary, check out Andy van der Raadt’s blog, The Nice Modernist.