By Roger Annis, June 24, 2013
Towns and cities across southwest Alberta are under water after record rainfalls that began one week ago. The flooding includes Calgary, Canada’s fourth largest city* and the corporate home of the country’s oil, tar sands and natural gas industries.
Water levels have receded in Calgary but are still raging in the two rivers that meet in the city center–the Bow and the Elbow. The flood waters have moved on to threaten communities further east in the province, including Medicine Hat, a city of 60,000, and in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Bow, Elbow and other rivers in southern Alberta drain into the South Saskatchewan River, which eventually drains into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.
At their height, the waters in Calgary forced 75,000 people from their homes. The city’s population is 1.1 million. The business district in the city center remains closed and without power. As many as 120,000 people across southern Alberta have been displaced. The only other flood event in Canada to rival these numbers occurred in Winnipeg in 1950.
The hardest hit community in the province is High River, population 13,000, 50 km south of Calgary. It is entirely evacuated and submerged under water. A lake has formed over much of the town.
Michelle Coleman spoke to a CBC Radio reporter at an evacuation center in Calgary on June 23 and said she believes that many homeless people camped and living in creek and river valleys in the city have lost their lives. “There’s a lot of people missing. They say they evacuated properly? Bull!”
Coleman decried the absence of emergency services provided to the homeless. Other news reports are describing slow or non-existent emergency assistance to flooded First Nations communities in rural Alberta.
Southern Alberta is a semi-arid region that is occasionally hit by freak rainfalls. The region suffered “once in a century” rainfall flooding in 2005. This time, approximately three times as much rain fell in a storm system that originated in the Pacific Ocean and dumped huge amounts of moisture as it traveled east across southern British Columbia and Alberta.
River and creek levels in the region reached levels never seen since European settlers moved in more than 100 years ago. The Continental Divide of North America traces, approximately, the border of Alberta and British Columbia. Rain and melting snow on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountain range flow east into Alberta and eventually north. A firefighter told a local CBC Radio One program that this is the fourth “once in a century” flood he’s seen during 20 years on the job in Calgary.
It’s too early to determine the exact role that rising average temperatures played in this latest weather catastrophe to hit in North America. But the trend is indisputable–warming global temperatures, sparked, in part, by the burning of the coal, gas and oil that is extracted in Alberta, portend rising ocean levels and increasingly erratic weather systems.
Statements by political leaders in Alberta, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose home electoral district is in Calgary, will, in the coming days, point to the tasks of recovery and rebuilding. They will give this a positive spin, citing the positive civic spirit in evidence everywhere in the disaster zone.
Insurance policies do not cover water damage to homes caused by surface water (as opposed to water damage caused by drainage pipe or plumbing malfunction). The federal treasury will cover the costs of lost or damaged property. That cost $100 million in 2005. Early estimates of total damage in this time are $5 billion (the second most costly natural disaster in Canadian history, after the January 1998 ice storm in Quebec). How many future storm events can be underwritten in this way?
In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, climate activist Bill McKibben explains how changing climate conditions are breaching the capacity of modern engineering to construct roads, bridges, water supply and electrical generation systems and other societal infrastructure that can withstand increasingly erratic weather events.
McKibben writes, “A deeper problem… is that there’s no new normal to aim for, no way to reestablish the textbook formulas that served us well. We’ve increased the temperature one degree so far, but the same climatologists who predicted that rise also tell us that unless we can quickly break our addiction to fossil fuels, we can anticipate four or five degrees as the century wears on. Each increment adds new energy to the system, and at the upper boundaries engineering as we’ve known it becomes very nearly impossible.”
Below are three news reports from today’s Globe and Mail daily on the devastation across southern Alberta.
* An earlier version of this article listed Calgary as the “third largest” city in Canada. It is fourth largest, after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
1. Questions are beginning to be raised about a report produced after major floods in southern Alberta in 2005. The report was completed in 2006 but then shelved. Recommendations have received only minimal implementation, including that further residential and commercial development be prohibited on flood plains. See this article for more: Chronicle of a disaster foretold: Calgary and the floods, by Andrew Nikiforuk, published on The Tyee.ca, June 25, 2013.
See here a map of the cities and towns in southern Alberta hardest hit by the June 2013 floods. And here for background on changing weather patterns and the building practices on flood-prone lands in Alberta.
2. In High River, 300 residents defy evacuation, devastation
News article (excerpt) by Carrie Tait, Globe and Mail, June 26, 2013
… Rivers all across the southern half of Alberta flooded towns last week, and High River, about 60 kilometres south of Calgary, is one of the hardest-hit areas. Calgary, Canmore, Siksika Nation and others must rebuild large swaths of their communities. Alberta Premier Alison Redford says it could take a decade.
Residents in High River, like other centres, don’t know when they will be able to return home – or whether they still have a home at all. The Dennis trio, including 17-year-old Kienen, stayed in High River when the Highwood River took over town Thursday, arguing they saved their home by immediately pumping out water.
Ms. Dennis insists she is safe, despite officials saying the largely deserted town is without sewage services and power. “We got lots of water. We got lots of food. I’m not concerned,” she told reporters, six days after High River declared a state of emergency and told all residents to evacuate. “I’m at home in the safety of my five animals that weren’t willing to leave. So that’s why we’re here.”
RCMP say they have contacted 327 people still in High River and encouraged them to leave. Thirty eight people who stayed behind have since been rescued. More than 4,500 buildings have been searched. Officials have not been able to search 63 buildings because of integrity issues or because the toxic water is too high. A specialized dive team is now searching for victims. Three people are confirmed dead because of the Highwood River flood.
High River hosts invisible sinkholes, gas leaks, dust clouds made toxic because of feces and dead animals. Authorities sparked a fire when they tried to turn on the power in one part of town. Infectious diseases are a risk. Some homes are still completely underwater, and there is a still a floodwater lake two kilometres wide and five kilometres long. Water is still freely flowing through some areas of town.
Power lines in Wallaceville, a community next to Centre Street, lie in puddles and fire hydrants are flattened into deep mud.
For those outside the town’s barricades, frustration with police is growing. On Tuesday, resident Walter Danylak was turned away. “I could go in and at least pick up more clothes, get more personal belongings and leave without interrupting,” he said.
High River Mayor Emile Blokland does not know when residents can return.
“We do not have sanitary sewer. We have no water for those folks. We have no utilities for those folks. When they get here, we have no gas for their cars. We don’t have a grocery store open,” Mr. Blokland said in front of a newly built berm on the edge of town. “We don’t have a medical centre. We don’t have protective services for them. We don’t have a drug store for them. No business in town is open at this moment. It is not safe to be in our community,” he said. “We don’t have a flood. We have a disaster.”
Waters surge southeast, leaving some communities picking up the pieces while others brace for a deluge
By Kelly Cryderman, Globe and Mail, June 24, 2013
Calgary and other devastated communities are starting a painstaking recovery after the worst flood in Alberta’s history, even as the southeast of the province braces for the arrival of the peak of surging waters early Monday. Alberta Premier Alison Redford said that while Calgary, Canmore and High River are shifting into recovery mode, other communities such as Drumheller and Medicine Hat are bracing for their own ordeal.
The government has examined river flows, rainfall and the flooding impact, and Ms. Redford says they have confirmed the floods of the last several days are the largest in Alberta’s history. “It’s been shocking to see the unbelievable destruction and the powerful impact of these floods,” Ms. Redford told reporters Sunday night. “We will live with this forever.”
Tens of thousands of Calgarians were allowed to return to their homes Sunday as river waters receded, and the province’s largest city and business centre shifted to the daunting task of cleaning up – and paying for – the unprecedented flood damage. Still, thousands of residents remain under evacuation orders and unable to survey the damage to their homes. And Calgary’s iconic Saddledome remains wet and muddied, less than two weeks before the Calgary Stampede, while parts of the downtown – the hub of Canada’s oil and gas sector – remain under water and without power.
In High River [south of Calgary, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains], the hardest-hit community, 80 per cent of the town is without power or basic services, and the RCMP expects search and rescue efforts to take days.
The financial impact on the province’s and country’s economy has yet to be tabulated, and Ms. Redford would not speculate on an amount. But it’s starting to become clear how long a road lies ahead. She announced the appointment of three junior cabinet ministers to oversee “reconstruction” and said the province will help people with uninsurable losses. “This is like nothing that we’ve ever seen in Alberta and it is going to require monumental marshalling of resources, skills and people,” she said.
Three flood-related deaths in the High River area were confirmed on the weekend.
Although Calgary municipal officials had originally predicted it could take weeks or months for the downtown to be powered and open for business, late Sunday Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the buildings occupied by 90 to 95 per cent of the city’s downtown workers could be functioning again by Tuesday. Still, he advised companies to keep non-essential employees home for at least Monday and Tuesday.
But Mr. Nenshi is determined that the Stampede, the 101-yearold rodeo and festival that brings hundreds of thousands to the city each year, will go ahead, despite the Saddledome and Stampede grounds still being partly flooded Sunday. The mayor said the fairgrounds are draining “remarkably fast” and noted the Stampede has its own electrical generators. “So Stampede 101 may look very, very different than the 100th Stampede, but it will happen 12 days from today.”
On Sunday, Isha Sharif was able to enter her Calgary home, for the first time since a frantic evacuation Thursday evening, to find her basement nearly full of water, and her living room and garage covered with water and mud. Her six year-old son cried for his lost toys, but one of the family’s greatest losses is Ms. Sharif’s extensive library, including a collection of 100-year-old medical textbooks.
“We have small children and we don’t want to be back in the house because of mould concerns,” Ms. Sharif said. “We’ll have to do a full or partial tear-down. It’s pretty bad.”
The focus of concern has now shifted to the southeastern corner of the province. In preparation for flooding in Medicine Hat, more than 10,000 residents have been evacuated in the city of 61,000. Mayor Norm Boucher said that although peak water flows won’t be as high as the province originally predicted, the city was already seeing some homes and downtown parking garages flooded by midday Sunday. “The sandbagging didn’t help very much,” Mr. Boucher said. “But we think everyone is safe now.”
Siksika Nation chief Fred Rabbit Carrier said the community east of Calgary was heavily damaged from the floods, with nearly a quarter of the reserve’s population forced to flee.
Across Alberta, more than 2,200 Canadian Forces troops are on the ground, plus seven Griffon and two Cormorant helicopters either on standby or being used.
Although city officials insist the Stampede will go on, a number of events have already been cancelled. The Conservative Party of Canada had planned to hold a convention in Calgary this summer but cancelled the event this weekend. On Sunday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said while the party remains committed to holding the policy convention in Calgary, it would postpone the event until at least the fall.
Amid devastation and widespread darkness, Calgary prepares to rebuild
By Carrie Tait, Globe and Mail, June 24, 2013
A crane in Calgary’s downtown is unstable. The bridge over the Elbow River by the Stampede grounds is structurally unsound. Water fills a construction pit in the blossoming East Village – a hole where a building was supposed to emerge.Monday marks this city’s fifth day in a state of emergency, and even as power is expected to return to most of downtown early this week, Alberta’s largest city will remain ugly and dangerous.
Atco and Graham construction trailers smashed into trees when the Bow River swept them away. They sit mangled in the woods. Just east of them, the Bow ripped part of a Calgary Zoo fence into its waters.
And then there are the homes. The Bow and Elbow rivers did not discriminate. One Elbow Park resident opened the door of a silver Porsche to inspect the damage, after water had receded to its grill. The flooding pushed hundreds of low-income seniors in Bridgeland out of their homes and into evacuation centres in the middle of the night. Single-level bungalows in some parts of Bowness, home to the wealthy and the working-class, had water just shy of their roofs. The sewer system is out in the communities of Elbow Park, Bowness, and Sunnyside, even though some people there can return home.
“Given the magnitude of this, I mean, they call it one in 100 years,” Calgary Police Service Chief Rick Hanson said in an interview. “But I suspect that if they had a flood like this 100 years ago, Calgary wouldn’t be here. It would have been washed away.”
Although 65,000 Calgarians were allowed to return to their homes Sunday afternoon, as many as 24,000 still had no electricity.
Helicopters are flying over the city, beaming images into the basement of Calgary’s Emergency Operations Centre. There, officials from about 60 agencies are monitoring every aspect of the city. At its peak, 200 people were there watching screens, relaying information, making critical calls on evacuations, rescues, gas, power and issues that can only be addressed by officials with the authority to make instant decisions. Information is so sensitive, some of the screens were shut off when reporters were escorted downstairs.
Across the hall, Calgary’s Recovery Operations Centre is in action. Its people may not be able to fix roads yet, but they are ordering materials, getting ready for when they will be heart of the operation.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Bruce Burrell, director of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, are prepared to exert power. Mr. Burrell, who serves as the city’s fire chief when it is not in a state of emergency, has the power to enter any building, confiscate assets and force companies to hand over the keys to equipment such as vacuum trucks because the city is in a state of emergency. He can conscript anyone he wants to do whatever he says, as long as it is necessary.
Calgary is getting there. Chinatown, a zone between the Bow and downtown, is dry. Street sweepers are whipping up clouds of dust. Get further south and mud takes over. Pop-up lakes remain all over the city.
Flood water reached at least two tunnels on the south line of Calgary’s light rail system, but officials will have to wait for water to recede before knowing when service will be back. Calgary has contingency plans, including borrowing buses and operators from other municipalities should the city’s downtown open but lack light rail from Calgary’s south.
Calgary Public Library is also doing its bit to help, planning to open all but four branches Monday. Its IT system is down, so librarians are doing it the oldfashioned way – by hand. Mr. Nenshi passed along a message from librarians.
“Maximum 10 books at a time, even for the mayor. … Don’t return your books yet. Yes, we will waive your late fines. Since there’s no IT, there’s no point in returning your books.”
“Librarians,” Mr. Nenshi said. “They are very kind to people.”
The librarians’ message went on. “Every day I have a line that I just enjoy giving you,” Mr. Nenshi said. “And this one is: ‘No fines for books damaged by flood.’ So for those of you who dropped your books in the bathtub – I won’t finish that sentence.”
Calgary’s business core goes dark
Offices of Canada’s major oil and gas firms may be shut down for days to months, leaving telecommuting the prime work method
By David Parkinson, Tara Perkins, Brent Jang; Globe and Mail Report on Business, June 24, 2013
Calgary’s downtown business core faces indefinite power outages and untold damage on Monday after devastating flooding made a ghost town out of the city’s gleaming array of office towers. The disruption rippled through one of Canada’s most vibrant economies and raised questions about the longer-term impact.
With the downtown area still under an evacuation order and officials warning that it could be anywhere from days to months before power is fully restored to the core, some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the country are preparing to forge ahead using backup systems, satellite offices and telecommuting.
But with the massive Calgary Stampede tourist event in danger of being a washout, thousands of people displaced from their homes and a repair bill potentially in the billions of dollars, there is widespread uncertainty over just how hard the region’s and province’s economy will be hit – and for how long.
“This is orders of magnitude larger” than the 2005 flood in the area that caused roughly $500 million in damage, said Todd Hirsch, chief economist at Calgary-based financial institution ATB Financial. He suggested the damage could be in the neighbourhood of “10 times” the 2005 total – an amount that would be equivalent to about 1.7 per cent of Alberta’s annual gross domestic product.
Boardwalk REIT, which owns and operates numerous residential rental properties in Calgary, reported that its Elbow Towers building near the flooded Elbow River had suffered “extensive flooding,” but said the damage should be covered by its insurance.
H&R Real Estate Investment Trust said its 58-storey Bow building, the city’s biggest office tower and the one nearest the most heavily flooded area, was not damaged – nor were H&R’s other two major properties, the Telus Tower and TransCanada Tower. However, the city’s power supply to the Bow remains out, leaving the building with only emergency power.
Cenovus Energy Inc. and Encana Corp., the two major tenants who each have roughly 2,000 staff at the Bow, said they have backup systems in place for their computer servers, allowing employees to access work e-mails and electronic files from home.
“Our ability to work under difficult circumstances will be put to the test this coming week,” Cenovus chief executive officer Brian Ferguson said in an internal e-mail to employees on Sunday. “I understand we may not be able to access our offices in downtown Calgary until at least mid-week. Work will be focused on businesscritical things only.”
At Suncor Energy Inc., there is backup power for critical functions, but since downtown is an evacuation zone, employees are being encouraged to work from home on Monday, said Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal. Suncor also has a couple of sites outside the downtown core, and those locations will be available for certain staff, she said.
“I really don’t think this will affect the oil and gas industry’s decision-making, revenuegeneration or spending capabilities. Companies here have sophisticated backup IT systems and disaster management plans,” said Peter Tertzakian, chief economist at ARC Financial Corp., a Calgary investment firm specializing in the oil and gas industry. “Only a small fraction of the industry’s productive oil and gas capacity is in the flood fairway, so output shouldn’t be affected much, if at all.”
Flood-related disruptions, however temporary, could distort economic indicators over the summer, as the impact of the disaster and the subsequent recovery work their way through the economy.
“There are big interruptions for the movement of goods due to the closure of the TransCanada highway and some rail lines,” said Mr. Tertzakian, who characterized this as a “short-term negative” for the economy.
Bank of Montreal economist Robert Kavcic told The Canadian Press that as much as one-third of Alberta’s economy could feel the bite from the flooding in the immediate term, with the shortterm impact running in the hundreds of millions of dollars. However, he said, “when the water recedes and people go back out to the stores, you’re going to get some replacement spending there, too.”
“Tourism is really going to be hit,” Mr. Hirsch said. The Stampede, a world-famous 10-day festival that attracts about $345-million annually in tourist dollars to the province, is scheduled to begin just 11 days from now. But the severe flooding on the Stampede grounds and inside the Saddledome, the major arena on the grounds that is used for a series of concerts, suggests that at the very least, the event will have to be greatly scaled down.
He added that the Alberta government could also feel the pinch on its already strained provincial budget. The province has $200-million set aside for emergency assistance, but “It’s not nearly enough,” he said.
On the other hand, businesses that provide cleanup and reconstruction services are going to be running around the clock. “There’s going to be an awful lot of economic activity – but none of it is positive,” Mr. Hirsch said. “You have to look beyond the GDP numbers. Alberta certainly won’t be better off for this.”