Another Thursday morning, the last day of spring. The rush hour traffic on Crowchild Trail is streaming into Calgary as Owen Tobert drives the other way through a pounding rainstorm, headed northwest out of the city. The rain has been worrying him. Always wet this time of year in southern Alberta, sure, but the water is hitting the windshield as if something has given way in the sky’s very foundations. He drives on through it, with the windshield wipers doing their level best to hold back the deluge, because he has to get to this fussy frickin’ meeting in some bland corporate conference room out near Cochrane. The rural municipalities on the periphery do not like what the city is up to in re something or other, and Tobert is the city manager—Calgary’s most senior bureaucrat—and this is the job. This is the job most days, anyway.
But holy hell, this rain.
The rain had already begun to cause consternation hours before he left for Cochrane. At 4 a.m., an official from TransAlta, which operates eleven hydroelectric dams on the Bow River, had called Len MacCharles, the deputy fire chief who runs the Calgary Emergency Management Agency most days, to say they would be releasing water from their bulging reservoirs at 400 cubic metres per second. Even in the bleary-eyed pre-dawn, the deputy chief could tell you without looking it up that the city bans boating on the Bow at 360 m3/s. At 6 a.m., TransAlta upgraded the estimate to 600 m3/s, and that didn’t appear to be anywhere near the last word on the subject. Shortly after 8 a.m., the city enacted its Municipal Emergency Plan, which brought the Emergency Operations Centre from standby into full operation.
Tobert arrives for his meeting early, just before 9 a.m., and opens up his laptop. Much consternation in his inbox: forwarded news items and links to crazy live video footage of the calamity upstream, roads caving in and fences collapsing and what seems like half of Canmore being washed into the Bow River.
Tobert is a quiet, coiled, watchful agent of Normal. He has seen a lot of Normal and unremarkable deviations from Normal in thirty-two years at the city, employed as a civil engineer in a range of capacities, all of it in the business of preserving Normal and protecting Normal and hewing back to Normal by whatever means he has at his disposal—but this is not that.
This is the other thing, the thing he’s been waiting for—somehow, unspoken, between the lines of umpteen routine reports and workaday projects—his whole career. This is the inflection point. The furthest deviation from Normal he will ever see.
It’s not just the rain. There’s the abnormally high snowpack, more than a metre of it still up in the foothills. There is the weather, the ground still mostly frozen near the Bow’s headwaters, the thawed layer saturated with southern Alberta’s late-spring mini-monsoon. And now this relentless rain falling on the remaining snowpack. Nothing swells the rivers with meltwater quicker. Plus a westerly wind is working with low-pressure systems in the north to hold the storm in place over the foothills. A catchment area is like a big bathtub, he likes to say, and this swollen storm is hanging there and the taps are wide open over the Bow and the Elbow, the tubs that drain toward downtown.
No, this is not at all Normal. He is guesstimating flow rates and checking mental flood maps while he should be preparing for the morning’s meeting. He makes a quick call to the fire chief, Bruce Burrell, says to let him know when to leave the meeting. Because he’s pretty much certain he’ll have to. There’s nowhere near enough Normal in any direction.
The chief calls back around 9:30 a.m. Tobert races back into the city, driving straight to the EOC, a brand spanking new technological marvel of a facility perched on a bluff above the north bank of the Bow. The mayor is in Toronto, so the deputy mayor and a city councillor have been called in. Tobert explains the procedure, and they sign the order. At 10:16 a.m., for the second time in Calgary’s history, a state of local emergency is declared.
On the morning of June 19, the Bow and Elbow Rivers were both rolling through the city at around their usual springtime rates, 225 m3/s and 30 m3/s, respectively. By the evening of June 20, the Bow would be roaring past at 1,750 m3/s, the highest rate since modern monitoring began in 1911 and just shy of estimated flows during the epic floods of 1879 and 1897. The Elbow would hit 700 m3/s, more than double the rate it reached during the 2005 flood, the only other time the municipal government has declared a state of local emergency. As the rivers spilled over their banks, they would wreak more havoc, in dollar terms, than any other natural disaster in Canadian history. The estimated cost of the chaos unleashed in a few short hours across southern Alberta would reach somewhere around $6 billion, more than $1.7 billion of it within the purview of the nation’s insurance companies—the greatest payout ever for a single Canadian disaster.
Holy hell, this rain. Holy hell, these rivers. Holy hell, that sudden pivot in the life of a city, so quick it almost takes more time to recount it. For Calgary, June 2013 is a high-water mark in any number of ways. Its history may well be told from that date in before/after terms—unless, of course, 2013 turns out to be mere prelude, a sneak preview of the New Normal.
There’s an impulse, perhaps endemically human, to treat natural catastrophes as random, unpredictable. (Alberta government officials discussing the floods seem to favour the adjective “unprecedented.”) In truth, however, climate scientists, hydrology experts, and insurance industry executives alike have long agreed that volatile weather-related disasters are growing more common, and will continue to do so as the planet’s atmospheric carbon dioxide count races past 400 parts per million.
It is broadly acknowledged that Calgary weathered the storm as well as any city could reasonably hope, but less widely understood that the flooding could have been much, much worse. The city soldiered on—come hell or high water, as the defiant 2013 Stampede slogan put it—and it emerged more awake to the scale of natural disaster in this emergent age of extreme weather than any other municipality in Canada. The vulnerability of the ground it stands on, however, remains an open question.
Perhaps no industry on earth is more attuned to the shifting nature of risk than the global reinsurance business—the insurers of the insurers, a low-profile cluster of multinational financial institutions that underwrite the companies whose policies cover our homes and vehicles and businesses. Few industries are more unequivocal in their assertion that we are living in an age of extreme weather. Munich Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers, issued its first climate change warning in 1973, and it has been tracking global natural disasters ever since. In 2010, ahead of the Cancun round of international climate change talks, the company issued a statement noting a “marked increase” in such events worldwide, and a tripling of catastrophic flooding. The statement explicitly noted “the probability of a link between the increasing number of weather extremes and climate change.” But, as Peter Höppe, Munich Re’s resident climate change expert, told the Globe and Mail, “It doesn’t make any difference to our assumptions, or pricing, whether it’s anthropogenic or natural.” The reinsurers are convinced that we will see more and greater calamities in our future, and insurance premiums and deductibles have already begun to reflect this reality.
Closer to home, the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s CEO, Don Forgeron, told the CBC that the frequency, intensity, and damage from extreme weather was already on the rise across the country, especially in Alberta, which has received 67 percent of Canada’s insurance payouts in recent years. “As a country, we’ve just done nothing to prepare ourselves for this eventuality,” he explained. The same day, the Calgary Emergency Management Agency wrote a press release warning citizens “to prepare for the possibility of damage from flooding and severe weather.” The dateline on the CBC story covering both announcements was May 29, 2013, three weeks before the city’s worst flood in over a century.
Thursday evening, June 20. A break in the rain, the sky brightening for the first time all day. I had been packing and tidying the house ahead of a summer trip. My wife and two kids had already gone east, and I was supposed to board a flight to Toronto the next day. I decided to take a walk to the north bank of the Bow to see how feasible that might be.
Our home stands less than 500 metres from the water’s edge, but I don’t often think of myself as living on a flood plain. We live in a hundred-year-old house in one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, and we are not in the habit of thinking of our little corner of the world as vulnerable. We don’t even get the crazy hail like they do up on the naked prairie in the northwest suburbs. The river is a place to bring the kids to throw rocks in the shallows or ride bikes along the bankside pathway. It is in essence an aesthetic feature, an element of the neighbourhood’s design. Or so we lulled ourselves into thinking.
When I arrived at the riverside, the Bow was moving alarmingly fast, gushing under the stone arches of the bridge with barely a couple of metres’ clearance. Most of the year, the river runs two storeys below the bridge’s deck. It had already spilled up over the pathway on the north bank, and now it was steadily creeping up the steps. It had three metres to go before it would begin to wash overland into the community, but it was only 7 p.m., and there was more rain in the forecast.
I went home and started hunting through the basement for the most valuable and irreplaceable stuff stored down there. I trudged up the stairs with my writing archives and my wife’s journals, photos, and camera equipment. In a giddy daze, I swept up my daughter’s scattered Lego universe and loaded it into a bin. A few things went all the way to the second floor, the rest onto high shelves in the front hallway. Surely that would be enough. How high could the river possibly go?
The order to evacuate arrived via social media not long after I had finished with the basement. I called friends who live farther back from the river and claimed a bed for the night. A Twitter link sent me to an official notice about the evacuation procedure. I loaded our two cats into their carriers and packed the car. I went back into the house, found some duct tape. On the porch, I tore off two long strips, smoothed them onto the glass of our front door in an X. Then I stood back for a moment, wondering whether I was just playing at being spooked, or if this was what real disaster felt like: preternatural calm, the dull bustle of logistics, a quarantine X on the door echoing down through the Middle Ages, all the way back to the oldest books of the Bible.
I’m lingering here because it’s important to understand that no one in this calm, lawful country expects to find himself marking his door with a cursed X after midnight on a quiet June evening. When you find yourself doing so, I can report that logic vanishes. It falls away like a riverbank you were sure was permanent. You stand naked on your doorstep, marked, quarantined. On some basic level, you have surrendered all pretense of control. Just like that.
It doesn’t matter, in that moment, that it is all perhaps—even likely—a formality, that a soggy basement is neither damnation nor even necessarily permanent damage. In that moment, a child in a surreal waking nightmare, you peer into bottomless loss. All the way down. Your mind unspools disaster movies, post-apocalyptic thrillers, cable news footage from New Orleans to Bangladesh. It seems almost silly—you might laugh out loud at yourself, as I did—but it does. You consider it, at least for a yawning second. What if this is the last time I stand here? What if this is the end of all of this? And if I do return, what will remain?
Around the time that I was receiving my evacuation notice, Mayor Naheed Nenshi was hurrying from the airport to the Emergency Operations Centre across the Centre Street Bridge and up the hill from the downtown core. He had been in Toronto that morning to deliver a speech, extolling Calgary’s civic virtues for another adoring audience of Torontonians who probably wished he was their mayor, too. He had participated by cellphone in the state of emergency declaration and the first wave of evacuations, then returned on a WestJet flight loaded with nervous Calgarians.
“Thank goodness for the live TV,” he recalls. “Every single television on the plane was tuned to the same pictures, and a lot of people were coming up to me and saying, ‘I live in Discovery Ridge or Mission. Can I go home when we land? ’ Of course, my answer was ‘Well, actually, no, you can’t. Those areas have already been evacuated.’”
Nenshi knew the city’s emergency plan well, but he had never set foot inside the EOC. The building had only just opened in the fall of 2012. Above ground, it is a modest steel-clad semicircle no bigger than an electrical substation, but it extends three storeys underground into the hillside, culminating in a vast operations room that on first sight reminds everyone, Nenshi included, of NASA’s Mission Control. A half-dozen rows of cubicles stretch across a space the size of a small gymnasium, terminating at the far end of the room in a wall mostly obscured by three enormous monitors.
When he arrived, the monitors were crammed with everything from traffic cam video feeds to hydrology graphs showing river flow rates to work plans for various emergency teams. The cubicles number in the dozens, each labelled with the name of a different civic agency involved in managing the unfolding flood.
Nenshi: “The police stood up—literally stood up like it was Whac-a-Mole—and said, ‘We are evacuating a seniors’ building in Chinatown. We need transportation.’ And Transit stood up and said, ‘Three buses are on their way. They’ll be there in twenty minutes.’ And Social Services stood up and said, ‘You need a Chinese translator? I can find you one within a half-hour.’”
In the tense, frantic hours and days and even weeks of disruption, destruction, and dislocation that followed, the City of Calgary would earn lavish praise for its calm, compassionate, orderly management of the flood. By Friday, more than 80,000 residents had been evacuated from thirty-two neighbourhoods, and the central business district of Canada’s fourth-largest city had been mostly emptied. The fire department rescued more than 400 Calgarians from their inundated homes without serious incident; a good many of the zoo’s animals were relocated to higher ground; five emergency shelters and eleven community re-entry centres were set up, outfitted, and operated; a thousand Canadian soldiers were tasked with rebuilding riverbanks and saving an electrical substation from collapsing into the river; a hundred tiny crises were identified, analyzed, and brought into order. And all of this with little panic, no chaos, and remarkably few casualties. A single death in Calgary was attributed to the flood, an elderly woman who had drowned after defying the evacuation order.
You’d be wrong to lay too much credit for the steadfast navigation of the disaster on any single pair of shoulders. There were competent managers by the dozens staffing cubicle after cubicle at the EOC, hundreds of emergency workers and thousands of volunteers engaged in anonymous acts of heroism all over the city. The guy barking orders at the EOC to keep the whole operation racing along was Fire Chief Burrell, and Nenshi and the other elected officials handled the media’s mikes and spotlights. On Friday, a firefighter named Shawn Wiebe would fix a Calgary Sun photographer’s lens with such a winning grin, as he carried a relieved old woman through a flooded street, that he became the instant icon of the city’s unexpectedly buoyant spirit.
Still, the scene greeting Nenshi’s arrival, that Whac-a-Mole game marshalling the city’s most important resources with workaday efficiency from a single room, was more Tobert’s doing than anyone else’s. It emerged from lessons he and a few of his colleagues—in particular Len MacCharles, CEMA’s deputy chief—had learned during the 2005 flood and spent the intervening years trying to impart to city hall.
And there was Tobert, as the mayor toured the room getting brought up to speed on Thursday night, pretty much embodying the reason and precision he had brought to the task of preparing the city. His focused eyes behind studious rectangular glasses, his hair in its usual afterthought side part, he was the consummate old-school engineer in the room. He didn’t so much stand out as form the EOC’s fixed, steady centre.
“Many people who work in emergency management are by definition a bit hotheaded,” Nenshi explains. “They have to make decisions quickly, they’ve got to move fast, and the emotions can run very, very high. Owen was a bit like the nuclear control rod in the room, making sure that stuff got done, and got done efficiently.” Tobert had set the stage for this clockwork scene by putting his practical engineer’s mind to his experiences with managing the previous flood.
Tobert took over the job of city manager in the fall of 2003. When the Elbow spilled over its banks in June 2005, it caused the biggest flood Calgary had seen in half a century, and the biggest crisis he had ever managed. More than 1,500 residents were evacuated and 40,000 homes damaged, and the city coordinated its entire response from a tiny building, built in a different age for a much smaller city. “We had a much smaller room with very low technology,” MacCharles remembers. “We tracked the water flow from the gauges on a whiteboard. Thank goodness, no one came along and wiped it off. Yeah, we took pictures, but still.”
The need for a modern facility was obvious to everyone, but for Tobert the more profound lesson of 2005 was about process. As the teams bustled and swirled around him in the tiny old EOC, he remembers listening to a conversation among senior officials from the fire department, the police, and the gas company about the evacuation plan: “I asked, ‘Well, what are we doing about getting people back into their houses afterwards? ’ They said, ‘Oh, we’ll worry about that later.’ I said, ‘No, no—we have to worry about that now. We have to have the systems in place.’”
He came to realize that he needed a completely separate organization: “It can’t be the same resources, because the fire department running a crisis is a black hole. They take every bit of resources you can find and put them into the crisis. We needed to partition off a group of resources focused only on recovery. What are the things we need to do to get back to normal? ”
In the months after the 2005 flood, Tobert embarked on a self-directed study of emergency management, with particular focus on the recovery stage. Cities, he realized, were quite sophisticated in their thinking about emergencies, but much less so about the aftermath. His reading meandered through the literature on public health and epidemiology, and he soon became obsessed with the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept across North America at the end of World War I.
The Spanish flu of 1918 spread so quickly because of soldiers’ dispersed homecomings and was surprisingly lethal to younger adults, who are normally among the least susceptible. Many in that generation had reached adulthood without exposure to serious flu viruses. Like a riverside city gone too long without a flood, the youth of 1918 were especially complacent and vulnerable.
Tobert was fascinated by the different ways North American cities managed the crisis. Some ground to near-total halts: businesses and schools closed, transit systems shut down. These were the ones that suffered economic crises and prolonged social calamity on the heels of their public health emergencies. “The ones that did well,” he says, “got ready for the other side, after the crisis had passed. Are you ramping back up, as opposed to just being paranoid and worried, until it’s proven that there is no more illness? ”
The great enemy of a city’s recovery after a disaster, he came to understand, was stasis—that collapse in resources after the emergency has faded but before the affected populace has started on its way back to Normal. Even as I fretfully marked an X on my front door a few hundred metres from the swollen Bow on the night of the flood, Tobert was already thinking past the emergency. Working from his plans, the EOC contained a sub-unit, a recovery operations centre, and its specially tasked staff were already ordering water pumps to be shipped in from across the country and sorting out the details of getting everyone back into their houses.
Tobert’s emphasis on recovery informed one of the most critical decisions the EOC made in the hours after the waters began to recede. Dozens of empty neighbourhoods and much of the downtown core were now habitable, but it would be days before safety inspectors could check every gas line and electrical box for damage. Conventional wisdom—and the city’s legal department—called for caution. “We threw convention aside. We knew we needed to let people do self-assessments, because we didn’t have enough inspectors,” he says. “We needed to get people back in their houses.”
Ever wary of the creeping threat of stasis, Tobert and the EOC team sent home as many Calgarians as they could, as soon as they could, to restore some semblance of Normal. By Saturday morning, even though the entire Stampede grounds remained underwater and the Saddledome was inundated to the eighth row of seats, Tobert was confident enough to walk into a meeting with Stampede executives and assure them that they would be able to carry on with the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, set to open just two weeks later. “Hell or High Water,” the Stampede’s reworked slogan, went public at 4 p.m. that day.
Saturday, June 22. Evacuees had already started to move back into Inglewood, a cozy old neighbourhood on the south bank of the Bow and the city’s original townsite. The community had experienced a few terrifying moments on Friday, but emergency berms had been built, and the pumps were growling away and the sidewalks filling with excavated basement debris.
Gian-Carlo Carra, city councillor for the area, was assessing the damage at his own riverside home in Inglewood when he noticed some Twitter chatter about a problem at the southern tip of Inglewood, on a little bump of land formed by the sweeping S-curve of the Bow as it turns south after bisecting the city from west to east. Only a day earlier, he had helped to build an emergency berm upstream from that little bump. The Bow was now roaring straight toward it at five times usual flow rate, seemingly hell-bent on abandoning its meandering curve forever and bashing its way overland. A riverside pathway had already collapsed, and on its far side lay a cul-de-sac extension of 8 Avenue Southeast, lined by a tidy row of upscale houses. When Carra arrived, the berm he had helped build had already fallen away. He called Tobert at the EOC, and the city manager dispatched one of the Canadian Army units that had just arrived from Edmonton.
Carra: “This huge line of heavy equipment started showing up, and troops started just taking every last piece of anything they could. They were bringing Jersey barriers, they were taking anything and pitching it into the river. It was a race against time. If we had not put all of the resources into it that we did at the time, and if the river had not started to go down—if either of those two things hadn’t happened? Eighth Avenue would have fallen into the river, and the entire neighbourhood would have back-flowed in from that low point.”
“We dodged a bullet,” says Tobert. “It could have been way worse.” He rattles off a list of the city’s lucky breaks, starting with Thursday night temperatures in the foothills that fell low enough to turn the precipitation to snow, slowing the runoff. And the Elbow didn’t entirely jump its banks as it skirted the downtown core, and none of the skyscrapers with custom-made transformers in their basements were flooded. When he chases that what-if, he wonders about companies abandoning Calgary permanently.
Look on Google Maps at the patch of 8 Avenue that nearly fell into the river. See the neat line of mature trees in golden autumnal glory on the bank? Gone. Many football fields of greenery gone. The river today is a fundamentally different river than the one that flowed through the city before the flood. This is what still worries Tobert. It’s a worry we’re all obliged to share.
When Nenshi talks about his city’s response, he describes a “three-step framework.” Calgary proved remarkably adept at the first two steps—response and recovery—but the third, resilience, remains the trickiest by far. The greatest obstacle lies deep in the nature of democracy. The politicians charged with staking their careers on the public’s willingness to pay a considerable amount now to save even more later have every reason to assume that the rewards will come long after they have left office. As a 2009 study of political responses to natural disasters in the journal American Political Science Review concluded, “Voters reward the incumbent…for delivering disaster relief, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending.”
After the 2005 floods in southern Alberta, then MLA George Groeneveld commissioned a study on how best to insulate the city and the province against future inundations. His report recommended eighteen mitigation measures at an estimated cost of $306 million, including completion of the province’s flood plain maps, which had not been updated in decades, and a ban on selling Crown land for development in flood-prone areas. The 2006 report was shelved until 2012. Federal governments have been promising a plan for natural catastrophe protection since 1998, and Public Safety Canada received new funding for a National Disaster Mitigation Strategy in this year’s budget, but for now Canada remains the only G8 country without such a plan in place. The majority of Canadian homeowners believe their insurance policies cover overland flooding; none of them do.
Even in Calgary, resilience spending was hard to come by in the interval between the floods of 2005 and 2013. When Tobert presented his plans for the new, state-of-the-art EOC to city council, support was divided. Councillors wondered about the cost—the final price tag was $47 million—the size, the technological wizardry. Gian-Carlo Carra was among the skeptics. “What are we expecting, a zombie apocalypse or something? ” he responded half-jokingly. “It seemed like an extraordinarily Cadillac thing to do—but I’m a believer now. I stand corrected.”
Calgary presents a case study in what University of Waterloo ecology professor Blair Feltmate, chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Project, calls “management by disaster.” Mitigation strategies are usually dictated not by assessing future risk, but by remembering the scale of the latest calamity.
In nine of the past eleven years, he notes, the Canadian insurance industry has paid out more in damages than it has received in premiums. Yet even a measure as simple as obliging homeowners and building managers to install backwater valves, which prevent clogged sewers from flooding basements, has thus far proven beyond our collective will. Feltmate worries that our imaginations will continue to fail us, that even twice-bitten Calgary won’t learn all of the critical lessons of resilience in time.
To their credit, both the municipal and provincial governments have already initiated studies to examine available mitigation tools, to find the best, most cost-effective ones and reduce future damage. Alberta’s flood mitigation task force will deliver its final recommendations later this year. The $830-million package of proposals, submitted last fall, includes detention berms at the headwaters of the Elbow and Highwood Rivers, and a diversion tunnel to link the Bow and the Elbow upstream from the city. The province has also been talking to TransAlta about using the company’s hydroelectric dams for emergency mitigation; draining the Glenmore Reservoir as the 2013 flood approached helped the city avoid the full wrath of the Elbow.
We need only look east across the prairie to Winnipeg’s Red River Floodway to see the value of large-scale measures. The forty-seven-kilometre diversion channel was mocked as a boondoggle when construction began in the early ’60s; it was derisively nicknamed Duff’s Ditch, after its champion, former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin. It has since paid for itself many times over, preventing an estimated $32 billion in damages since 1968.
Nenshi points out that the policy wonk’s argument against huge public works projects like the proposed mitigation tunnel is based on a management-by-disaster scenario in which 2013 is the worst case. “Maybe we were lucky this time. It’s the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, but that’s not to say it couldn’t be costlier. So we don’t really understand what the total damage would be, because we don’t have a crystal ball. And that financial analysis ignores the true and real human cost of the flood—the damage to people’s lives, their mental health, their psyches.”
On the morning of June 22, I returned to my house on the Bow River flood plain and headed straight for the basement. Though the water was chest deep on the ground floors of houses just blocks away, our basement was miraculously dry. The sun had dried the pavement out front. The air smelled like carefree summer.
I had rebooked my flight for later that morning, and with the Bow now receding I decided the place was near enough to Normal that I could catch it. When my family returned home a few weeks later, the illusion of a city where nothing had been altered forever was pervasive. You had to know where to look for the permanent scars.
It would be better if we could all see the stretch of 8 Avenue that nearly collapsed into the river, because that is where we all live now. All of this city, this country, this world. The river is pointed straight at us.
As long as we’ve watched, it has turned, meandered in its lazy S, east, then south again, then gone, rolling over the horizon to sweeten someone else’s view. Until one day it doesn’t. Until one day it just keeps coming, ferocious and indifferent, and the old trees and the new asphalt fall away, and we can only hope the army is on its way to load concrete pilings and sandbags into the river.
For now, we have only hope and some vague plans. And the sinking feeling that it could all happen again. And the certainty that, sooner or later, it will.
This appeared in the June 2014 issue.