Dispatches

City Under Water

Jill Boettger

The Calgary floods left behind a stew of knee-deep mud, and waterlogged piles of couches, fridges, books, toys, artworks, chairs, carpet, drywall...

When Lobi the hippo swam out of his enclosure at the Calgary Zoo, the Bow River had crested its banks and flooded the downtown core—houses, arenas, office towers, parkades, condominiums, homeless shelters, restaurants and St. George’s Island—one of Calgary’s oldest public parks and home to the zoo. The force of the floodwaters had broken a large window in the African Savannah exhibit, giving Lobi open access to the rest of the park. At five o’clock in the morning, in the dark (the power was out because the river had flooded the electrical grid), one of the zookeepers swam into the exhibit to repair the window while another waited outside with a rifle. “We could have had hippos God knows where,” said the zoo’s vet, Dr. Jake Veasey. “They could have been twenty or thirty miles downstream.” Eventually Lobi got wedged between a wall and a gate, and the zookeepers built a ramp of sandbags to get him out. “It was kind of like squeezing toothpaste back into a toothpaste tube,” Veasey said. “His skin was squeaking against the metal.”

A few days later the floodwater receded, and the steps around the hippo tank, where my daughter’s kindergarten class had been sitting two weeks earlier, were littered with dead tilapia—large silver fish with round eyes that shared the tank with the hippos. The kids had been fascinated by the shimmer of the fish and had sat on the steps to sketch them in their notebooks while the hippos lay outside in the sun. Then the kids chased the flamboyant free-roaming peacocks through the picnic area. After the flood, two of the peacocks were dead and two were missing. Carrie and Richard, the giraffes, were up to their bellies in riverwater, and the lions and tigers had been moved to the animal hospital, now overcrowded from all the evacuations.

In June, heavy rain joined the streaming spring meltwater in the Rocky Mountains, and the Bow, Elbow, Sheep, Highwood, Red Deer, Little Bow and South Saskatchewan rivers rose and rose and some breached their banks. Thirty two separate jurisdictions in southern Alberta—nations, cities, towns, counties—declared an official state of emergency. In Calgary, twenty-six neighbourhoods along the banks of the Bow and the Elbow were evacuated, displacing 11, people. The city set up emergency shelters, which received 1,6 people on the first day, but most residents sheltered with family or friends.

The Bow and Elbow rivers begin in the Rockies, flow through the west of Calgary and meet two blocks east of downtown at Fort Calgary, the city’s historical interpretive centre, site of the North-West Mounted Police fort built in 1875. The birthplace of the city is the confluence of the rivers, a community now called Inglewood. When the evacuation order for Inglewood was announced, I tried to reach my friend Mary, who lives there, to ask if she needed a place to stay. She called me back the next day and said that the army, the police and the fire department were going house to house and had been to her home several times, explaining that the evacuation order was mandatory. But her husband wouldn’t leave, and she stayed too, to help him bail their basement and care for their distraught neighbour, now sleeping on their couch—a sixty-year-old man named Frank who rented a small white house across the street. Frank is a hoarder, and when Mary had gone to his home to check on him, she found him in the centre of his crowded living room weeping over a collection of stuffed animals. “It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Mary and I were supposed to be giving final exams for the spring semester at Mount Royal University in two days, but exams had been suspended until further notice, and in the absence of further notice I fielded panicked emails from students. I phoned Mary and offered to field panicked emails from her students too, while she managed the chaos at home. While we were talking, the phone died. She called me back on a cell phone. “Our power’s been cut off,” she said.

At the peak of the flood, the Bow coursed at 2,4 cubic metres per second, eight times its regular flow, and the Elbow at 1,24 cubic metres per second, twelve times its regular flow. Essential public buildings closed—City Hall, Government of Canada offices, the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Provincial Court—and some flooded, including the Central Library, which lost twenty thousand books to the Bow. The state of emergency was extended for two weeks. When the flood finally subsided and the cleanup began, people hauled out the waterlogged contents of their homes, creating massive wet piles of their ruined belongings on their front lawns: couches, fridges, tables, books, kids’ toys, drawers, wardrobes, artworks, chairs, appliances, carpet, drywall, insulation. The swollen rivers had left behind a heavy stew of mud, knee-deep mud, and the residents and volunteers and emergency services workers who went in to clean out homes resembled swamp creatures trudging in and out of muddy hollows.

Every day the mayor and the chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency gave several news briefings that were streamed online, and I found myself glued to the computer while they announced river flow rates and the status of evacuated neighbourhoods, and listed power outages and road closures. The mayor was steady and frank and well-spoken and reassuring, and his updates were an anchor in the storm. My kids—ages five and three—asked me who he was and why I was so interested in what he had to say. I explained that the rivers had risen, that people who live near the rivers had left their homes and that roads had been closed, that Dad’s work was closed and Mom’s work was closed and Sylvie’s kindergarten would be closed until the water went away, and then I explained that the man in the videos—the mayor—was telling us the story of what was happening, of who needed help and how they were getting it.

On the first business day following the flood, my husband Steve, a city planner, met his team in the food court of a hilltop mall—downtown was still closed to the public and City Hall had no power. He was told that anything he did to help with flood recovery would be considered work, so he went to the nearest flooded neighbourhood, a ten-minute bike ride from our house, and spent five days at the designated re-entry centre installed at the community tennis courts. The re-entry centres had been set up in flooded neighbourhoods as places where residents could meet with city staff to figure out whether their homes were safe to enter, and how to get their basements pumped, and how to go about restoring power and gas. Steve spent the week handing out masks and rubber gloves, answering questions and receiving volunteers, who arrived one or twenty or three hundred at a time, looking to help. And they did. In homes all along the rivers, strangers arrived and helped residents heft their soggy possessions into dumpsters and trucks, and dig the mud out of their basements. A friend whose kitchen was half submerged in riverwater had an entire rugby team turn up to lend a hand, while more people she didn’t know barbecued burgers on her back porch and handed out beer to those labouring in the mud.

One week into the state of emergency, Steve was told that he wouldn’t be able to return to his office in City Hall for at least another five weeks, because the power source had been damaged and the emergency generator would only be used for essential services. City staff who needed to retrieve files from their desks so they could work from home were escorted into the building by security guards with flashlights. Our neighbourhood, just southwest of downtown, was one of many parts of the city cut off by—and from—the flood, so Steve set up a temporary office in our basement. Meanwhile, the mayor continued to broadcast multiple news briefings every day in which he said, over and over, please stay home please stay off the roads please stay away from the river. So I did I did I did, and for three days I watched the footage of the flood stream in, wondering from the periphery of the disaster if it would somehow become less surreal that my city was under water.

At home, the kids and I occupied ourselves with colouring and Lego, rented a movie and weeded the garden, as helicopters passed overhead. I was drying dishes in the kitchen when Sylvie appeared with a purse stuffed with papers and notebooks.

“I’m the mayor,” she said, “and this is my mayor bag.”

“What’s in your mayor bag?” I asked.

“A description of the flood. My flood board. My Red Cross help writer. My flood book to write down what happened. And maracas. The maracas mean ‘come’.” She surveyed a list she’d written out in the flood book. “The names tell me who’s in trouble and who needs my help,” she said.

Then she produced a house she had cut out of construction paper: a rectangle bottom and a jagged half-triangle on top. “Some homes, some parts of the roof broke off because of the flood,” she explained, pointing to the ripped triangle. Steve walked into the kitchen as she was describing the state of the paper house. “Hello, your worship,” he said. She looked at him and scribbled something in her flood book.

Four days into the state of emergency, I set out to see Mary in Inglewood, where residents had been allowed to return to their homes. It was an ordeal to sort out how to get there. The bridge I would normally take over the Elbow River had crumbled at the bank, and the road on either side was submerged in water, any visible asphalt cracked and gaping. I could not circle through downtown—it was still closed to the public—and Memorial Drive, usually busy with a steady stream of cars, was quiet except for the drone of the fire department’s rescue boats travelling where cars usually do. Both the Bow and the Elbow flow through the centre of the city, so when the water spilled over the banks, filling roads and underpasses and bridges, what was once connected became fragmented.

I drove a wide circle around the centre of the city and arrived in Inglewood an hour later to find Mary on her back porch with a bottle of wine and half a pack of cigarettes. She lives two blocks from the Bow. We shared stories and drank wine in the sunlight, and then she took me for a walk through her neighbourhood. The city had asked people reoccupying their homes to put signs in the windows indicating which services they needed: power, gas, pumping. As we walked, I read the signs in her neighbours’ windows: Need Gas. Need Electricity. Need Pumping. And then, Need Boat. Need Boat Launch. Need Vacation. In another window, Need Hookers. We walked past the cordoned-off Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and on to the bike path, and we followed the path’s yellow centre line to the river, where it dropped off abruptly. A police cruiser guarded the new cliff. We stood behind the caution tape and watched the river, brown and fast, carry on its way.

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Jill Boettger

Jill Boettger writes poetry and nonfiction from her home in Calgary, where she lives with her husband and two kids. She teaches in the Department of English, Languages and Cultures at Mount Royal University and is a frequent contributor to Geist.

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