unLessons from the Flood: We are amazing

I didn’t really panic until I hit the first police barricade and was told I couldn’t get into my neighbourhood. The police officer and I eyed each other through my window.

“We can’t let any more cars into Sunnyside,” he said.

“I need to go get my husband,” I said.

“And our dog!” Flora piped up.

“We can’t let any more cars into Sunnyside,” he repeated. Then looked at me again. Cut his eyes to the right.

He might as well have said, “But you know the area well, of course.”

I nodded.

Sharp turn right. How many other ways into Sunnyside? The main roads would be blocked off… but, yeah. Residential streets. Roundabouts. Alleys.

Text from Sean:

“Worst case scenario, park on McHugh’s Bluff. I’ll bike up the hill.”

It’s good to have a Plan C.

But Plan B worked: about 12 minutes later, after several not-entirely legal turns—one of them right in front of another police cruiser—I was in my driveway. The sky was blue, although the clouds south of the city were terrifying, and coming closer.

And I was home… and my neighbours were throwing things into their cars… and, yet, none of us really felt a particular sense of urgency, even though we got, at 5:45 p.m., the call to get out of our neighbourhood by 7 p.m.

See, our city’s two rivers, the Elbow and the Bow, get angry every once in a while. We get massive snow melt most years; every few years, they rip our riverbanks. And there was crazy flooding already south and west of the city—but… we were so sanguine. I mean, this is Calgary. One of Canada’s largest cities. Natural disasters don’t happen here.

Still. We’re responsible citizens.

“Are we going to flood?” Flora asked, in tears.

“No,” I said, firmly. “This is a precautionary evacuation. We’re just leaving so that the emergency crews don’t have to worry about us. Chill. Grab some books, your iPad—sleep-over at Grandma’s. No big deal.”

But. Those clouds. Disconcerting.

An hour later, with some clothes, computers, and Sean’s film equipment (our livelihood) in the truck, we were in evacuation traffic. But of course, right? What in a big city emergency doesn’t involve a traffic jam? Especially when you’re evacuating 100,000 people in a city of a million?

Texts from family and friends: “Are you guys high enough? Are you safe? Are you dry?”

Our response: “Evacuating. But safe. No worries.”

That was Thursday, June 20, 2013.

It was, honestly, kind of fun.

Ender’s commentary: “Does the river have a leak? Shouldn’t someone plug it?”

We laughed.

The rain that came down on us as we were navigating evacuation traffic and already flooded bridge and road closures to get to the safety of my parents’ house—providentially on very, very high ground—was a little scary.

But. You know. It was rain.

“Kind of an adventure, hey?” Cinder said. “Holy crap, look at that thunder!”

Kind of fun.


It stopped being fun in the morning when we saw what the rivers had done.

Our neighbourhood looked like this:


… and, by comparison, we got off easy.

If you want your heart torn to pieces, google “High River flood images” and see what the rivers have done to our neighbours in High River.

Not that Calgary was unscathed. The damage was… astounding. Our downtown core—the financial core, the business centre of one of Canada’s largest, richest cities—under water. Paralyzed. Some 100,000 of our people—out of their homes.

The rivers—gone mad. Still flowing, ripping.

It was, we found out, not just the worst flood ever in Canadian history, but the worst natural disaster in Canadian history.

“Well,” I told Sean—who’s from Manitoba, a Canadian province famed for its rampaging waters and regular floods, “when Calgary and Alberta do something, we do it all the way. Even natural disasters. Eat your heart out, Winnipeg! Our flood’s more epic than yours!”

And we laughed hysterically. Because, you know. If you don’t laugh…

We spent the first day after the flood doing what our amazing mayor, Naheed Nenshi, told us to do. Staying home. Staying off the roads. Letting the emergency crews do what they had to do.

It was the hardest thing ever.

You know how you watch the reactions of survivors of natural and other disasters on the news, and there’s all these people clamouring to go home, even though it’s dangerous and stupid?

I will never mock them again.

We wanted to go home.

We wanted to see home.

On Saturday—day two after the flood—we broke. We started calling and Facebooking and connecting with the people in Sunnyhill—our immediate community—and we met in a safe area… to plan? Compare notes? Cry? I’m not sure why we met. I think we needed to see that we were all ok.

And then… we broke orders. We didn’t mean to, you know. We were just going to stop on top of the McHugh Bluff to look.



We walked down.

Thigh-high water in our street, spilling over sidewalks, lawns, and the adjacent Curling Club parking lot.

Water everywhere.

No way of getting “home.”


We looked.

The kids played on the playground—high and dry.

I let tears flow for the first time.

I don’t think the pictures really do it justice.

There was so much, so much water.

So much destruction.

It was overwhelming.

Our children—how resilient are children?—thought it was kind of cool. “Can we swim in it?” Cinder asked at one point. “Jesus Christ, no, it’s probably full of sewer water,” I choked out. They ran. Climbed trees…


Cinder took this photo of our Common area from the Tall Pine.

… and skipped rocks in the flood waters. Ender earned himself a cameo in one of the flood videos:

 (That’s one of our neighbours kayaking through our Common. An experienced paddler, she was rescuing some of our people’s documents. You see, we didn’t really take that evac order that seriously. Some of us didn’t even take underwear, much less passports… The video is by Calgarian Bradley Stuckel and co.–did they not do a beautiful job? My filmmaker husband is uber-impressed.)

On Sunday (the flood waters came over Thursday/Friday night), Sean and I sold our children to friends, and, along with most of the flooded out Sunnysiders, waded into our neighbourhoods ahead of the all-clear from the city to see what the hell was going on with our houses.

It was, I’d like to say upfront, after seeing what we waded through, an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do.

But you see… it was home. We had to go see.

We reacted, all of us, in different ways to what we saw.

Sean went shopping for clean up and demolition supplies, and then to a community planning meeting.

I, unable to deal with the massive destruction on the ground floor, went up to our kitchen, and cleaned out the fridge—power, of course, was off, and had been since Thursday, and everything was rancid. And then cleaned, scrubbed the fridge. Because that, I could do.

And then…

And then, friends, my city’s people pulled off a miracle.

I think, in the future, the enormity of what the flood did to Calgary will be underplayed because of the rapidity with which the city stabilized and returned to some semblance of “normal” within a week.

We evacuated Thursday, June 20, 2013.

A week later, parts of our downtown were open for business.

The majority of the flooded houses in my neighbourhood had been ripped and disinfected: saved. All of the 41 (I said 38 in my earlier posts on calgarybusinesswriter.com: forgive me, numbers not a strong suit, ever) flooded units in my little sub-community of Sunnyhill were gutted, cleaned, bleached, demolded: saved. (Here’s my initial call for help to our friends, neighbours, and citizens; here’s the thank you and another thank you because one is just not enough—and here’s my take on why and how they performed this miracle.)

We lost, as a city, as a province, a mind-blowing amount of infrastructure. Roads. Bridges. Our beloved Zoo! Individual houses, and so many possessions (me: never buying anything. Ever again). But our response to this crisis, as a community, as individuals, has been amazing.

What grabs the headlines during so many other crises, and disasters? Looting. Riots. In Calgary, we had too many volunteers. And the Calgary Police Service wrote the citizens a thank you letter

Our people opened their houses to evacuated relatives, friends and strangers. Started a laundry brigade for the evacuees. Fed displaced residents and the army of volunteers. Turned out in hordes to rip out basements, clean up debris, help any way they could.

Laughed in the middle of the chaos:


We put up “Need Sewer, Need Power, Need Cute Firefighter” signs in our windows:


(This isn’t my photo; it’s a FB/Twitter viral sensation–if you took it, tell me and I will happily credit you.)

Why our mayor is awesome and you should have nenvy too: “To all the people with the ‘Need Cute Firefighter’ signs in their windows’: We’re working on it,” he tweeted in response. And man, he delivered:


Ender wanted to pose with the cute firefighters. It was totally Ender. Not his mother. Really. Um. Moving on…

We have a crazy amount of work ahead of us, as individuals, as neighbourhoods, as communities—as a city and as a province.

Are we back to normal? Not quite. But we’re “back.” And we’re working on defining our new normal.

But after what YYC did in these last two weeks—we’re gonna get her done. No question about it. Because—we are Calgary. We acted as a community, to save our communities.

We are amazing.

You want to see more pictures of how amazing we are? Of course. Here are a few more:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

69 thoughts on “unLessons from the Flood: We are amazing

  1. Jane, thank you so much for the update. I have been thinking of you guys and praying that things were indeed getting somewhat better. I am happy to here that you are all doing ok, but still so shocked at how devastating this flood was to your hometown. We had massive flooding and power outages for weeks as I mentioned from Hurricane Sandy right here in our own neighborhood and I remember all too well what this was like, so trust me my heart goes out to you all. Still keeping you in my thoughts and prayers now.

    • Thank you, lovely. We are stabilizing. Our outlying rural areas are still in terrible trouble, but the city’s recovering well. Hard to shift back to “normal,” though, I confess. I might be in adrenaline and firefighter-withdrawal. 😛

  2. This?
    This is awesome. Not that the flood ravaged through homes and neighborhoods and cities, but the fact that Canada? We stepped in and helped instead of being selfish and looting. Ahem…’Murica.
    I am so glad that you are safe and ummm…kids…swimming…I’ll send vodka to disinfect…I love your spirit. I really do.

    • I doused them in hand sanitizer. And bleach. Daily. “But, Mom, you used to only ever use bleach in the bathroom when we were out of the house!” “Yeah. That was before you started swimming in sewage…”

    • And are you ok from yesterday’s flash flood in TO? I’m not sure if you’re in the city proper or elsewhere in Ontario. Looks like things are drying out, but the amount of water and the photos we saw here–terrifying.

  3. I am so sorry for your loss…one thing I admire most (apart from all the obvious): the sense of community you have. You seem to be like ONE, BIG Family & that my friend is one hell of a community to live in.
    What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, right??
    lots of love

  4. Thank you for sharing your incredible experience. What a tragedy but so glad to see how everything went smooth and how many wonderful people there were to be organized, courageous and proficient in putting back the pieces. I’m so happy to see that people could still find humor during this dark time as well!

  5. Wow. I am so very glad for your amazing community. I love the slide show at the end and am so glad to hear that things are getting back to normal so quickly. Note to self: buy more bleach and wine. Just in case. Thinking of you, friend!

  6. The way that you have all come together and transformed a tragedy into a story about community, heart, bravery, humor, and resilience is amazing. Your ability to embrace this experience and to write about it so beautifully is a gift to us all. I thank you. I also want to say how glad I am that you a finding a new normal for yourself, your family and your communityl. It’s so, so very good to have you back!

  7. Oh, Jane! I can’t even imagine. I’ve been following the stories and pics on Facebook. Your sense of humor, family, and community really pulled through, lady. If there is anything I can do, just say the word! xo

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  9. I’m just sitting here trying to think of something to write, and I’m drawing a blank. Not sure I’ve ever read something so simultaneously devastating and inspiring. Thanks for being generous enough to share your experience with us… xo

  10. I missed you, lady. Only you could write about this experience with such beauty and vivid imagery. (And I loved Ender’s comment. He’s a smartie!)

    I kind of agree with Stephanie; I don’t really know what to say except thank you for sharing your heartbreaking journey with us.

    • Alas, there was no plugging the leak. I skip the story of when Sunnyhill Lane started flooding again on Friday and we debated on whether sandbagging it with our sodden laundry was worth a try…

  11. i know it had a happy ending considering the alternatives, but here I am crying. Although I am too emotional these days. But I am truly amazed AMAZED by what got done, and how fast. To think of all of the natural disasters in the US and the inept way they’ve been handled. You are truly blessed, and they are truly blessed to have a writer as eloquent as you to share it!

      • NO! That would actually be impossible, thank goodness! No… I think it’s my meds, it’s ridiculous. But you are manipulative. And darn good at it. 😉

  12. How perfectly told. I felt completely drawn in. My nails have gone. Chewed them all of, nervously, as I started reading.
    SO pleased you and your family, and your entire community are ok, and have each other. x

  13. Jane,
    I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging for the past month But, I had to stop by to let you know that I am both saddened and relieved to hear that you survived this disaster. I think the name of your town is a true reflection of the people who occupy it. Sunnyhill is indeed a beacon of light. The sunshine, the refuge upon a hill.

    Big HUGS! ~Anka

    • Hugs back at pregnant you. Sunnyhill is certainly not a reflection of our geography… as we are not on a hill at all, it appears, but a flood plain. Sunny Flood Plain Lane. What do you think? Should I lobby the city to change our name?

      • Yeah, I gathered that Sunnyhill is not literally/physically located on a hill. But, there’s no time like the present to start lobbying for a name change! 😉

  14. Oops! I meant “saddened by the tragic turn of events and relieved to hear that you survived them.” Sorry, Jane. I’m starting my third trimester of pregnancy and I’m super exhausted. Stay well my friend.

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  21. My sister is two streets back from the Bow River.. on Bow Crescent, devastated their house and still rebuilding. Awful things to happen.

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