I have been pulled away from my usual weekly posts on this blog by a busy summer of teaching and travel. My next post was to be a happy and thoughtful post about my adventures in California, teaching at CREATE Orange County and road-tripping up the Pacific Coast Highway for my 50th birthday. However, returning home to Alberta in mid-June, the Great Mother had other ideas. I find myself instead writing about what has quickly become known as the Great Alberta Flood of 2013.
After two weeks in southern California, I had returned still very much ‘away’ in my mind and spirit. Reconnecting with my friends and family and the beauty of our Canadian Rockies home, I gradually came back into the Alberta headspace, left the California coast behind and began to re-inhabit my Alberta life. It had rained quite alot while I was away and everything looked lush and green. The rain kept up for part of each day. One week after my return, the skies closed in and the rain settled in constant. This is a pretty ordinary occurrence for June in the Rockies. We all thought we were just in for the usual. We talked pleasantly about rainy day activities and carried on as normal.
On Wednesday, 19 June, the rain turned torrential. The creeks began to rise as they often do during spring run-off. We’d had some flooding this time last year that had done some damage. Repairs were needed and carried out. Money was spent. We started to wonder idly to each other whether the repairs would hold.
By Wednesday night, we were starting to get nervous. Overnight, the torrential rain continued and the biggest creek through town, Cougar Creek, began to rage. About 3am Thursday morning, members of the Fire Department began knocking on doors, warning nearby residents to prepare for evacuation. After that, it all happened so fast: the creek broke its banks and quickly began to swallow ten, twenty, thirty feet of land from either bank. Over Thursday morning, all attention was focused on Cougar Creek and the evacuation of residents from that side of town. Back yards were eaten away, then swept away, trees, decks, hot tubs. Then the waters began to churn against the foundations of the homes. By this time, the usually dry creek was a 50-metre wide raging monster. Heavy equipment operators battled from the creek bed to save the bridges. School buses ran evacuees to the evacuation centre set up in town. Other creek beds around town were raging too, heavy equipment shoring them up to save roadways, diverting waterflows as best they could. The river began to rise.
At 8:50am on Thursday, 20 June, my husband jumped in the car with me to drive me the three minute drive to work, leaving our 14-year-old daughter slowly waking up at home. Some water was running along our road, but not too much, what you might expect for that level of rain fall. At 8:55am, Stoneworks Creek in the mountainside above our home broke its banks and carved a brand new 20-30 foot deep cut out of the mountainside, straight down onto our road. Our road was immediately turned into a rushing brown river, with us on one side and our daughter and neighbours on the other. At 9:05, my husband tried to re-enter our road, but was turned back repeatedly. The road was closed and an emergency evacuation had been ordered. For another hour, my husband tried to get back home, and then to raise our daughter on the telephone. The power was gone, and she wasn’t answering. Terror and barely constrained panic rising in my throat, I ran from my work in the sandals and light jacket I had arrived in, hurrying on foot to try to reach our home and daughter. Half an hour later, I was at the blockade. The staff member manning the blockade shrugged – he didn’t know if I could get through on foot, but I was welcome to try.
At about 10:45am, I reached the edge of the flood waters. By this time, barefoot and streaming with water, and with eyes fixed firmly on the police lights whirling outside my home, I forged through half a kilometer of rushing floodwater to my thighs, choking on the fear in my throat. My eyes searched for sign of my daughter. I could barely breathe as I ran and stumbled through those muddy waters in search of the blood of my heart. Reaching the RCMP officers on the front doorstep of my building, they at first didn’t want to let me in. I looked the wide-eyed young man in the eye and told him my child was in there, and asked him if he was prepared to try and stop me. He gave me five minutes. Shaking from head to foot, streaming water and mud, I ran the length of the corridor, hands fumbling with keys and burst into our dark home. I ran, calling for my daughter, for the cat, stripping off my clothes as I went, grabbing anything dry I could find to put on, groping for shoes in the dark, my heart pounding in my throat. There was nobody there.
Within the allotted five minutes, I ran out the front door in dry clothes, too distracted and fearful to remember either a jacket against the torrential rain, or the case of important papers in the hall closet I ran past. I sat on the evacuation bus with my neighbours, my eyes searching for my daughter everywhere, waiting to be taken to the evacuation centre. The bus forged through the deep and fast flood waters, choked with debris, taking the residents to safety. Everyone taking pictures out the windows, hardly anyone talking, fearful eyes meeting fearful eyes.
The evacuation centre had been set up in the building where I work. After registering, I ran into my work to be immediately greeted by two colleagues. My daughter was safe, had been evacuated ahead of me and was with her dad in town. My heart seemed to stop and my breath seized in my chest as I ran for the phone. Much to my rather hysterical relief and pride, my daughter had been down in the parking garage helping neighbours move their belongings when we were trying to reach her. With great presence of mind and resourcefulness, she had prepared herself for evacuation, organised the cat and a few belongings and got out safely in the few minutes she’d been given. I was and am so proud of her.
Overwhelmed by the many offers of places to stay, we were able to settle in a generous and absent friend’s house on the other side of the valley. As with many families, we had been evacuated with no chance to pack any belongings or gather important medications or papers. The situation got worse and worse in the valley, reports flying rapid-fire through Facebook as news was passed from friend to friend, important announcements and evacuation orders shared, the condition of the bridges and homes reported. For the rest of Thursday, we ran storytimes and activities in the library to keep the children in the evacuation centre calm and busy. Throughout the day, the community opened its hearts and its doors to absorb the displaced families. As we moved through Thursday and into Friday, reports spread of devastation happening further afield in southern Alberta, of other communities equally devastated and in urgent need of assistance. Thursday night, and again Friday night, we all lay awake long into the early hours, finally falling into fitful sleep to the crash of rock and the grind of heavy machinery battling to save the bridges all through the night. Through all of this, the river rose and rose and rose, and we waited fearfully for it to crest. Would the river break its banks too? Or would the dykes hold?
The torrential rain finally stopped Friday night, and Saturday dawned with blue and sunny skies. The people of our town crept out under the incongruous sun to meet their friends and neighbours on the streets and trails, to look at the devastation and try to assimilate what had happened to our dear mountain town. For the fourth day in a row, Town staff, volunteers and emergency crews worked on, grey faced with exhaustion, keeping the emergency plan and communication and evacuation centres going 24 hours a day and battling the raging waters. Everyday heroes emerged, pulling together to support, provide aid, care and assist. Our community flooded the relief centre with donations. Convoys were taken to neighbouring communities. People worked together to care for each other and their neighbours. New friendships were forged through adversity. And still the emergency and work crews battled. The river dykes held. The creek flows crested and gradually started to fall. Heavy rain resumed late on Saturday, and again on Sunday before the sun finally started to emerge and help the drying out.
We finally re-entered our home on Tuesday, 25 June, after restoration of services and after the floodwaters had fallen. Water was still running, the parking garage was earthed up and sandbagged, full of water and mud. Belongings for many people in storage lockers were damaged, but for us it was just stuff. Our family was safe, our home essentially unharmed. We had turned our hands to volunteering, to help our friends and neighbours as many others did, and did not allow ourselves to stop and think. There were so many who were much, much worse off than we were, and we were counting our blessings. However, it took the legs out from under me at last to enter our home to find the pants I had been wearing during the evacuation hanging over the shower rail, muddy to the thighs.
As the days have passed and the waters have slowly receded, the river has slowly resumed its normal spring flow and our town starts to get back to business, we are confronted every day with the stories of our friends, of our neighbours, of our families devastated by the events. Homes structurally damaged beyond safety or repair, families who have lost everything. We have heard the stories of near escapes, of shock, of fear, of heroism, of love and a sense of community that goes bone-deep. We see the aftershock in each other’s eyes. We embrace with a tighter grip than before, hold each other a little bit longer, offer help and comfort, safe haven or willing hands or just a ready ear and an extra hug. Through social media, we keep in contact with our friends in other devastated communities, share resources and information, send help and supplies and love.
For us and for many families, the events of the last ten days have made us re-evaluate many things. Adversity is the maker or the breaker, for sure. I have been so deeply humbled by the extreme love and caring that has surrounded me and my family, and poured out of us toward those who have become our extended family in this valley. The brightness of the sun shone harsh light on the scars on our valley today and hurt my eyes and my heart, but we are prevailing, and we are closer because of it. To the neighbours, to the Emergency crews, to the Town of Canmore staff and administration, to the RCMP and the Red Cross and the Army, to the local businesses who devoted labour and equipment and time to helping save this town, to the hundreds of tireless volunteers who continue to labour still in all these communities, thank you so much from one family. We are honoured to be among you.