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Calgary will never be the same

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CALGARY -- As we all know, June 21 is the longest day of the year. That's usually a good thing in most Canadians' lives, as we revel in the amazing amount of sunlight and perhaps enjoy a BBQ with friends to celebrate the summer solstice well into the night.

But for Calgary, the longest day of the year was something altogether different. It was long, it was scary, and it was quite frankly unbelievable. Those of us who were evacuated woke to find ourselves with family, friends or caring strangers and were trying to figure out how it had all come to this. It had been quick. Before we knew it, six communities had been evacuated, then 10, then we woke up to 25 communities having to leave behind a lifetime of work and memories.

But it was a very local state of emergency. I heard it said there were two types of Calgarians during this crisis: victims and spectators. We evacuated up to very high ground in Southwest Calgary, Coach Hill. Up there, it was a surreal environment. People going about their daily business and shopping, with little to alert you to the fact Calgary was in crisis. Pubs and restaurants full of everyday Calgarians happily and normally enjoying the longest day of the year. Were they oblivious to the crisis playing out below them? No, but it was still distant from their lives.

Calgary is about 50 kilometres from north to south. It's a city of 1.1 million people. Less than one-tenth of them were evacuated, and so for many, barring the road and bridge closures and associated hassles in getting around the city, it was almost a non-event. When it's on the news, people are viewers but not actors. It reminded me of watching coverage of hurricane Katrina in 2005. It's no wonder some Calgarians needed to see it to believe it.

We thought we had the rivers under control. We built the Bearspaw Dam, the Glenmore Reservoir and massive berms to help mitigate flood risk in Calgary. Some people refer to the floods of 1902, 1915, 1923, 1929, 1932 as evidence that Calgary has seen all this before, and that nothing in the realm of climate change is responsible for this latest disaster.

My own community of Sunnyside is on the north bank of the Bow River, with a lovely view of the downtown core. The area last saw widespread flooding in 1932, but winter flooding continued until the 1960s when the formidable berms were built on the north bank of the Bow. After all that preparation, it just happened again, so I think we all suspect something other than bad weather and poor timing is afoot.

In Premier Alison Redford's own words, the world changed on June 21. But, in truth, we had been warned and instead it had been quietly changing for many years. Incremental, cumulative changes that finally broke over into a major disaster in one of Canada's economic heartlands.

So what now? Weeks, months and years of cleanup. Some soul-searching about a solid yet ignored flood-mitigation report and a re-assessment of development on flood plains, especially in a major urban centre. The new East Village development in particular may need a rethink. And as much as politicians and developers tell us it's safe to live so close to dangerous rivers, people may start making their own consumer decisions and property prices may plummet in affected areas. Riverfront property may not be as coveted and prestigious as it was before.

Calgarians, and other Albertans, are known as a hardy and hearty bunch. You can see that by our resolve to host the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the Calgary Stampede, come hell or high water. That will be a nice distraction from the stress and pain, but next year will we be in the same situation yet again?

It's a few days on from floodageddon now, and everything in our little neighbourhood seems remarkably back to normal.

Except it isn't. And it may never be again.

 

Troy Media columnist Lee Tunstall is a resident of Sunnyside in northwest Calgary and was evacuated during the recent flood with her 19-year-old cat and 86-year-old mother.


-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2013 A13

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