Five years on, Mayor Nenshi reflects on the floods of 2013
It’s 2 in the morning. It’s dark. The electricity has been turned off as a precaution. All I can hear is one thing, and it scares me.
I’m standing on the north bank of the Bow River, in Sunnyside, near the Peace Bridge.
I’ve been up for 23 hours, and I'll be up for 20 more. The noise I hear is the noise of the river. I've grown up here, I cross this river every single day, and I have never seen it this loud, this fast, or this angry. For the first time since the start of this crisis, I feel a bit scared. Scared for my city.
A few minutes later, I’m in Chinatown. We are evacuating a senior’s building. These folks have been awakened in the middle of the night, there is a language barrier for many of them, and they don’t know when, or if, they will be able to return home. I speak with the police officers in charge of the evacuation. They’re exhausted.
Like everyone else, they had gone to work that morning with little idea of what was about to happen.
But they did it. They kept these citizens safe, while treating them with kindness, compassion, and love.
I started to feel a little less scared as I saw the amazing work of our incredible public servants.
Over the days that followed, I saw that the incredible humanity of our public servants was matched by that of all of our citizens. Thousands of people showed up at McMahon Stadium with only two hours’ notice, only because they wanted to help. Tens of thousands cleaned out strangers’ basements, hugged when needed, and generally tried to make life a little bit better.
I’ll never forget Bev and the thousands of quilts she and many others made to replace family heirlooms, or Sam and his mum and the shepherd’s pie that strangers brought over. I’ll never forget my colleagues at the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Plant risking their lives to keep the plant operational and safeguard the water supply downstream. I’ll never forget the endless lemonade stands set up by kids across the city to raise money for flood relief.
I’ll never forget being chastised by a woman, who, when I asked “were you affected by the flood?” replied that she lived in a place that was high and dry, but “mayor, we are all affected by the flood. Because we all live here.”
And of course, I’ll never forget Lorraine Gertlitz. Sitting at the back of the Salvation Army Temple during her funeral, I realized that I could have been great friends with her had circumstances brought us just a bit closer. I deeply regret that our community missed so many more contributions from this incredible woman. Just as communities and families nearby mourn Jacqui Brocklebank, Amber Rancourt, Dominic Pearce and Rob Nelson.
Now, five years on, having just celebrated Neighbour Day in neighbourhoods across the city, I think about how far we’ve come and how far we yet have to go.
First, I think about protecting the city from future flooding.
Much work has been done. But much remains.
We need to continue our work within the city, like the Upper Plateau separation project, which will prevent Sunnyside from being the catch basin for drainage from the North Hill, to building up berms and hardening riverbanks across the city.
But the real protection comes from upstream mitigation efforts. Many studies have shown that the Springbank dry dam is the best option on the Elbow, and we must get on with building it as soon as possible. To their credit, the Government of Alberta has been unwavering in their support of this project, and I look forward to seeing shovels in the ground soon.
Similarly, we need a commitment to major upstream work on the Bow River, which will help us in times of drought as well as flood.
But perhaps even more, I think about that extraordinary power and resilience that we showed in 2013. How can we take that humanity and apply it to all the silent floods we face in our community every day? To addiction and mental health, to true reconciliation with our indigenous neighbours, to environmental stewardship and economic prosperity?
Ultimately, the single image that is most burned into my mind is that message tacked to a tree on Bow Crescent: “We lost some stuff. We gained a community.”
This op-ed originally appeared in the Calgary Herald.