Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Floods

On June 20th 2013, Calgary flooded. First thing in the morning I heard news that a small town west of Calgary had suffered great damage at the cost of The Bow river. A combination of spring runoff (snow melting in the mountains) and above average rain for the month of June, things were over flowing and out of control. Emergency alerts were popping up everywhere, there began concern that floods could occur in my beloved city.
I thought back to a time that didn't seem that long ago. 2005, when I watched from Strathcona Ridge as the Elbow River creeped over it's berm onto the road beside it. A downtown park called Prince's Island was submerged in water up to the tops of the picnic tables. There was damage but it was small. it was just on the cuff of everyday social media. I was posting pictures and writing blogs on MySpace at the time and I don't think Facebook even existed yet.
That felt like the worst this city could handle. I was wrong.
At 3:00 PM two Thursday's ago, the neighbourhood beside me was put under mandatory evacuation as was the neighbourhood two of my close friends lived in. I thought it was dramatic and unnecessary but also safe. "Better safe then sorry" I thought to myself as my friend updated that she had arrived on higher ground with her family. I left work at a normal time, the clouds had parted and the sun was strong on my skin through the humid air. I walked down 5th street to where I lived. Things felt different, there was an increase in police cars, a sign had been placed at the busy intersection of 17th ave and 5th street SW and I saw about 12 trucks filled with dirt and gravel drive past me in a frantic kind of way. It still didn't make sense to me. The rain had stopped, the streets that were challenging the storm sewers during my morning walk to work had dried up. I didn't really understand the panic yet.
I dropped my things off at my condo, I live on the second floor about 10 blocks away from the river. I walked closer to the area that the sign had said was closed off, I wanted to get a better idea of what all the concern was about. My sister who lived in the area had already been evacuated and was at my parents place. A police officer had walked around her complex, knocking on doors and telling people to leave. If the choose to stay, they had to sign a waiver saying so. I figured that if I wasn't supposed to be there, someone would stop me. Someone would tell me I was dumb and that I needed to leave. No one did, as I got closer to the river, more gravel trucks passed and I saw a digging machine making a giant dirt pile about 12 feet tall. Later I learned that the dirt pile was called a berm.
I didn't want to get too close to things, I stood about a block and half away from where the crews were working. There were so many people and so many things set up, I turned around and walked up 4th street (the business portion of the area I live in). I saw sandbags lining door frames and people waiting for city buses with a duffel bad and their pets in hand. All while the hot sun beamed down and the clouds kept moving east.
When do I start panicking? Do I start panic? I have a tendency to worry about things that don't really need to be worried about. Things looked OK and I had never in my life ever experienced anything that traumatic-- at least never at the hands of mother nature. I live in Canada, in Calgary. It's like a wonderful little bubble protects us from so many problems that effect other parts of the world.
I come home and my Internet if down. I use my iPhone to look up evacuations maps and call my parents. I message my friend who lives across the street and he says "the water won't come all the way up here", I felt so silly. I paced the floor and looked out the window. and paced and checked my phone and called my parents and looked out the window. Normal things were happening, people were heading to musical events and to the pub. The girls who lives across the way with the golden retriever was taking him for a walk. No one seemed worried, but still something didn't feel right. I turned off my lights and lite candles, isn't that what people do in these kinds of situations? My phone rang and it was my best friend "Pony, are you still at home?" I can't remember why she calls me Pony but it's my nick name. "Yes, where are you? are you guys OK?" She tells me that they are OK and that I need to leave. "But I haven't been evacuated-- as if the water is going to come all the way over here." she passed the phone to her partner who said "B, you have to leave. It's not about the water. if anything, they are going to turn off your services-- your power, your gas and your sewage. The roads around you are closing, you might get stuck. Just go to your mum's, you can always come back in the morning." She sounded so serious. It all seemed unnecessary but, my adrenaline was high and I doubt I would sleep anyway.
It's better to be safe then sorry.
I told her I would call when I got to my parents and hung up the phone. I grabbed my phone charger, an extra pair of undies and some socks. I looked around and said to myself "I'll be back in the morning" and basically left with that. I thought about taking my jewelery and maybe my passport but reminded myself I'd be back in the morning. My exact list of things I brought with me when I evacuated was:
phone charger
hair brush
tooth brush and tooth paste
face wash
an elastic for my hair
1 pair of socks
1 extra pair of under ware
bacon and cheese from my fridge (for breakfast the next day)
and a bottle of wine 
I grabbed my purse and my gym bag (never know when you might need yoga pants) and left. I made sure that my patio door was locked for once and that my computer was off. And that was that.
I got in the car and drove to my parents place. The streets were filling up with water and bad drivers. People were lined up along the quickly rising river and I felt so annoyed with them. And then I felt annoyed with myself. Why on earth was I evacuating? I didn't need too.
I arrived at my parents place and my mum was still up, she was watching TV with my sister and I sat at the kitchen table and drank some wine. I poured over my twitter as more info came in. Some people were partying like it was a fake end of the world, others were reporting the rate in which the river was slowly swallowing up my favorite parts of my city. Everyone went to bed but I stayed up until 3:30 am seeing pictures of rising waters. Our cities mayor returned from Toronto that night and toured the areas with my area's alderman, the last picture I saw was one of the two of them on top of the Glenmore dam, our mayors face was filled with worry. Eventually I fell asleep.
I woke up a few hours later and reached my hand under my pillow for my phone. I opened up my twitter and right away my feed was filled with pictures. The morning sun had just come up and my streets were filled with water, waist heights in some areas. It was 5:30 am and the sky was a never ending gray cloud. I went downstairs and my parents were up, I told them to turn on the TV and everything was live. The city was flooding. My dad who thought he was going to work and I who thought I'd be returning home in the afternoon, knew that wasn't going to happen. Safe in suburbia, we watched for hours as it kept raining and the city kept floods and both rivers just weren't cresting. I had images in my mind of people standing on the roofs of their houses as they had to be evacuated. We all thought the worst, I checked in with my other evacuated friends and they were sad and scared and I told them that no mater what, I would help them get through whatever it was that was waiting for them at home. It was little reassurance to them because none of us really knew what would be waiting.
Some of my friends went against orders to stay home and safe, they breached "red zoned" areas and checked on their house. They helped over people who weren't as stubborn save the things they didn't think they had to move. This went on for a few days. Most of us weren't allowed to leave our houses, we were in a state of emergency.
As all things do though, it came to an end. The rivers crested, the sun came back out and the flood waters started to recede. Still, most of us were not allowed to go near our places. The city was vibrating with energy to fix this mess, from the start people wanted to help. They were creating groups and joining forces to start helping the city get back on it's feet.
Our Mayor was so excellent during this time, he briefed us constantly on the state of things. He was honest and strong and had our backs. We knew that what he said was to be followed and he knew that we weren't dumb. As communities were cleared to be safe to return, rather then waiting on officials to evaluate situations, he allowed citizen to do the work. Setting out a guideline of what to look for and what to do, he let over 70,000 people return to their homes to do self assessments on the damage. He got areas back to work, he made sure that roads were repaired in a day. He ensured that as many peoples lives could return back to normal as possible.
I was allowed to return home a week after evacuating. My place was fine once the power was restored and the only damage I had was a bunch of moldy food in my fridge. We were given assistance to cover expenses, which I used to restock my fridge and I donated the rest to someone who needed it more then me. My life is back to normal. I don't feel normal though. I spent a week in constant anxiety and concern for the city and people I love. My heart made a happy home in my throat as I watched people join together to create strength and rebuild communities. Everyone and every thing was working so hard to put things back to normal, a new normal and I could see the effort.  I felt different, inspired and recharged.
Buildings were damaged, there were issues. Things are indeed different and some might not be for the better for now. My city has been in an official "state of emergency" for almost 2 weeks but that is ending tomorrow. I'm stiff from doing dirty jobs, from volunteering my self to those I don't know to help them get back on their feet and I'll keep doing it.
This city, who is rich with new money and lack of morals forgot their materialistic ways and got dirty for each other.  My faith for people was renewed, and the officials and the government and the police and my neighbours and everyone. When I finally got home to a clean, dry house I cried on my couch for about an hour. My adenine was down and I cried for the people who were so kind and the struggles that others were still going through. I cried because I knew in the end, we should all actually be OK.
Of course, this is my perception of what happened which is different from many others. There are people who lost a lot of things and have challenges ahead of them. Rebuilding, redoing. They aren't alone though and though for some it may feel like things are back to normal, it's actually a new normal. I will keep volunteering until I am no longer useful and will try my hardest to put this city back better then where I left it on June 20th  2013.
For pictures, see slide show here

ON EDIT: There is so much more to write about, but I just can't. Not all in one post. I tried too and I know it's long and boring. I might talk about it more or I might not. All I can say is I have never been more moved and touched by an experience. As traumatic as it was to how uplifting it was, it changed me in a way that I can only say as better. My city does need time to rebuild, close $500,000,000.00 of damage has occurred (rough estimate, too soon to tell) but none of that damage was human death. It's nothing to make light of and at a fault of my own ignorance (I don't want to diminish what others have done though because it possible has been the worst thing in their life), it could have been so much worse. Everything worked like a well oiled machine and in my eyes, the greatest disaster is losing life. The people haven't lost life and nor has this city. Thanks for reading as I continue to processes the experiences.

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