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10 years: The 2013 Calgary flood brought people together

The impact of 18 intense hours of rain is still being felt today.

On June 19, 2013, Calgary saw an unprecedented amount of rain over the course of 15 to 18 hours, eventually leading to much as $6 billion in losses and property damage across southern Alberta and one Calgary life lost.

Aaron Stayner, a resident of Sunnyside (which was one of the suburbs that got hit hard) remember the events of the flood like it was yesterday.

“It was into like the early afternoon, early evening. We’re at a wrap-up party at the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association for our kids’ soccer, and I was there with my daughters and my wife was off-site somewhere else, and then all of a sudden, being a Twitter user, that’s when we started seeing the evacuation orders kind of coming over on Twitter,” Stayner said.

“There’s all this chatter through the gym that we’re in, being like, ‘we’ve got to evacuate, we’ve got to evacuate,’” Stayner said.

The high amount of rain led to the cancellation of Stayner’s charity golf tournament earlier that morning. At the time, Stayner didn’t feel as though this was something out of the ordinary.

As the rain picked up throughout the day it became anything but ordinary.

“It was kind of like this slow boil and you never really realized what was how bad it was potentially getting until all of a sudden you’re seeing Nenshi tweeting out, yes Sunnyside you gotta get out now,” Stayner said.

As the water levels started to rush towards Calgary, the City issued a flood warning, activated the Municipal Emergency Plan, declared a state of local emergency, and gave an evacuation notice for communities at risk.

At its peak, the flow rate of The Bow River was eight times its normal rate, The Elbow was 12 times its normal rate and the Glenmore Dam was seven times its normal rate.

City-wide disruptions accrued with 34,000 locations being left without electricity, more than 50 bus routes being canceled, and 1,600 people registering for support on just the first day were some of the many disruptions.

In total about 80,000 people were evacuated over the course of the flood, according to The City of Calgary.

The full impacts can be seen at Calgary.ca

Lasting impacts

The ten-year anniversary of the Calgary floods is June 20, 2023.

Tim Haney, who is a professor in Sociology at Mount Royal University, has conducted research on multiple different natural disasters as they have seemingly followed him everywhere he has gone.

“My partner and I lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and when we went through Hurricane Katrina that made me sort of interested in disasters. We’ve also kind of had this history of our personal lives being affected by disasters,” Haney said.

“Our wedding in Wisconsin was disrupted by a pretty powerful tornado and then our son was born during the 2013 flood here in Calgary and was a home birth because of the flood.”

As the Calgary flood ripped through the city, Haney quickly jumped on to researching the impacts of the flood shortly after the storm passed.

“With a team of students from MRU, we went out and surveyed people in all 26 neighborhoods, and asked them questions about, where did you go when you evacuated? When did you come back? What sort of damage did you come back to? What were your financial losses from the flood?” Haney said.

“You know, but also a couple of really broad questions about how going through the flood might have changed their views on the environment, their views on politics, how it made them think about where they were going to live next if they plan to, think about flood risks in the next place they decided to live, all these sorts of things.”

Building neighbourhood connections

One theme that stood out was the heightened sense of community and relationship building.

“A surprisingly high number of Calgarians said that they met new people through the floods and that they had then kept in contact and so on,” Haney said.

“The flood helped them meet their neighbours, but what was really interesting was that it was the situation of need that brought people together.”

Through an interview for Haney’s Paradise Found? The Emergence of Social Capital, Place Attachment, and Civic Engagement after Disaster one participant (whose name has been changed for the study) recounted how a friend in his neighborhood owned a piece of land and took multiple families in after the flooding.

“(We) all moved out to the acreage with the trailers and fifth-wheels and then they had like a little, I call it a refugee camp, so there’s that they stayed there for about three months, so they all chipped in and bought a trampoline and a big swimming pool (laughing), took turns babysitting the kids and you know and cooking dinner and all that kind of stuff,” Dave said in an interview conducted during Haney’s study.

Stayner’s community of Sunnyside had a similar sense of community building.

“The most amazing thing was the experience of community in the entire city in that immediate aftermath,” Stayner said.

“Once the floodwaters kind of receded, and the street was drying out, and we’re down there, my wife and I started to clean up and stuff and that first day we were doing that I just remember, suddenly random people are just showing up asking if they can help.

“Before we knew, we had like 15 or 20 people just helping clean out our basement you know everything that had just been saturated, you know old wooden shelving, stuff like that. They’re getting in there with us, helping, and people are coming by giving you food and drinks and offering anything. That sense of community rising together was just amazing.”

Finding a sense of normal

Many people found that sense of community in the wake of the floods, but the sense of positivity wasn’t enough to ignore the lingering impacts both within the community and in people’s personal lives.

Haney mentioned specifically the challenges of returning to normalcy.

“An example of that would be during normal times, you’re used to looking out your window and you see the same two kids walking to school together every morning and the 7-Eleven across the street is open and you see people coming and going and all these little signs tell you, OK, it’s a normal day and everything is OK,” Haney said

“When you come back after a disaster, all of that is disrupted, the kids are no longer there because their family is displaced and hasn’t been able to come back yet. Or the store is flooded, abandoned, closed so people aren’t coming and going.

He said what people in Calgary who returned to their homes in flooded neighbourhoods told them was that things didn’t feel right. It wasn’t that their sense of security was threatened, but things were just off, Haney said.

Haney mentioned when he moved to Alberta in 2009, he was told that there would be no disasters to research. Since Alberta has experienced the two costliest disasters in Canadian history.

The toll this takes can be psychologically difficult.

“It’s incredibly psychologically jarring, to be told to leave your home to not be able to come back to depend on sometimes emergency shelters or you know, staying in a hotel, not knowing if you have a place to come back to,” Haney said.

The Sunnyside community continues to honour the resilience of the community with their annual Neighbour Day festivities. They did so again this year.

“We wanted to invite the city, again, just like they did so much for us,” Stayner said.