City & Politics, Essay

Calgary flood: Volunteers shine hope on devastated neighbourhoods

My city, and province, has been hit hard by flooding. You most likely know this. Up until two days ago I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

Three weeks ago my husband and I moved. We moved out of the community of Bowness, where we had lived for four years. Four years of walking the streets on warm summer evenings, driving home over the Shouldice bridge, and visiting the local businesses on Main Street. Four years of being Bownesians.

Bowness is a community in Calgary that has been hit particularly hard by the floods. All you need to do is look at a map of Bowness and you’ll see why; the Bow river flows around most of the community. It’s not called Bowness for nothing.

The place that we had been living in for four years was flooded. The street that we lived on was a lake. They only just got power to our old place a couple of days ago. When I went down there to peek at it there was still a big sign in the window saying, ‘We need power and gas.’ Signs like that were in a lot of windows.

Photo Credit: Julie Van Rosendaal

I feel stupidly lucky. We moved three weeks before the most devastating flood in Alberta’s history. If we hadn’t left, we’d most likely be dealing with a flooded, muddy basement and damaged goods.

Movement within the city has been restricted. We didn’t go down to Bowness when the rivers were raging, because we didn’t want to be the gawkers standing in the way of emergency vehicles. We watched it unfold on Twitter and the news. I could hardly believe this was all happening just fifteen minutes away from me. The community that we moved to has been completely unaffected. It’s like a whole other world up here.

Two days ago I knew I had to get to Bowness to help. I had the strongest urge to be there and pitch in wherever I could. I still feel like a Bownesian, and I couldn’t just sit idly by when people needed help. So I tried to prepare for what I was about to do. I picked out clothes that I didn’t care about, threw snacks and a water bottle into a backpack, found a pair of rubber gloves and a big bottle of bug spray, dug out my old winter boots that I’ve been wanting to replace anyway, and I went down to Bowness.


I tried to park close to my old place, but the streets were lined with parked cars. So so many cars. I parked farther away and walked to the devastation. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. People’s possessions strewn on front lawns. Piles of furniture, muddy drywall, insulation, appliances, TVs, mattresses. You name it, it was out in a garbage pile.

Police officers patrolled the streets on 4-wheelers and horses. Helicopters never ceased circling above. Sirens wailed. I’ve never been to a war zone, but I think it might be something like what I saw in Bowness. I walked to Bowness Rd., right by our old place, and continued east. I caught the eye of a man three duplexes over from where we used to live who was hauling soggy carpet out of his basement window. He said he recognized me. I told him I used to live just down the street and that maybe he’d seen me around. He smiled wide and stuck out his hand – his name was Pierre. Pierre’s basement suite was completely ruined. I peered through the window and saw nothing but mud.

I asked if he needed help and he gladly said yes. With two other people we pulled carpet out of that basement window and stacked it in a big, sopping, smelly pile on his lawn. The carpet was so heavy. After a while we took a break and he told me a bit about himself. He said he had lived in the bush for a bit, camping throughout Canada, so he was used to roughing it. He said that it was just stuff, it could be replaced. He was glad that everyone he knew was still alive.

At that moment a stranger walked up with a big cooler and offered sandwiches and water. Pierre gladly took one. It seemed they were about finished for the moment, so I shook his hand and kept walking down Bowness Road. I turned down 32 street and a woman walking toward me asked if I wanted to help out. I said yes and she showed me where they were clearing out another basement. I joined about 20 volunteers helping to clear the debris. Same story – endless amounts of insulation, drywall, floor boards and carpet came through a basement window.

We made a human chain, passed the debris along and threw it on the garbage pile. You couldn’t think about the fact that you were throwing the remains of someone’s cherished home on to a garbage pile. You just threw. Thinking about it too much would overwhelm. I got to know the two other girls in the line. They had driven up from the south of Calgary to pitch in. We shared our stories, talked about our jobs and shook our heads at what we were seeing.

After that basement was clear we moved on as a group to some 4-plexes even closer to the river. As I crossed the street I could see hundreds of people working in the front lawns and coming up from the basements on Bowwater Crescent. Volunteers and residents alike lending a hand to their neighbours. It was a remarkable sight.

I went into the basement this time and couldn’t believe my eyes. A thick layer of mud lay across the whole floor. A man in the basement was ripping out the drywall. He would rip it out and I would take it to the window. Same story again – throw all of the debris out the window. We also used squeegees to push the mud into the center of the basement and then used shovels to put it into buckets, which we then hauled up the stairs. As we were working here another stranger stopped by with bags of food – cookies, sandwiches, water, apple slices. Amazing.

I also encountered a woman with a bag full of rubber gloves, face masks, hand sanitizer and band aids. I gladly took a face mask. Every ten minutes or so, another stranger would arrive with a bag of food and water. A stranger that quickly became a friend.

Everyone was so upbeat despite the overwhelming circumstances. The ladies with the food lifted everyone’s spirits. The air was full of energy. Every house was the same – mounds of sopping garbage on the lawns, and people doing whatever they could to get it out.

A food truck (Fries & Dolls) had parked just up the street from where we were and we trucked over there for some grub. They gave out free smokies, iced tea and even had some beer. It was simply amazing to see the community in action. Everyone was helping their neighbours and doing it with a smile. We congregated on the street corner (the street I’ve walked down hundreds of times) and got to know each other. Shared stories of how the flood had impacted us or people that we knew. The dust hung thick in the air, and the helicopters still whirred overhead.

From there I walked down another street to a house that I had wanted to visit. A friend from Twitter (whom I had never met in person) had invited me that morning to stop by and say hello if I was in the area. Muddy, smelly and tired, I walked over to her house. I recognized her immediately from her Twitter picture and crossed her lawn. I introduced myself as ‘Krista from Twtter’ and her face broke out into a huge smile. She enveloped me in a hug and thanked me for coming to say hello. We chatted for a bit. All of the stuff she had pulled out of her basement was being loaded into a garbage truck.

“Look at how much better it looks!” she exclaimed. “This is just wonderful. We’ve accomplished so much.”

She was so upbeat, even as her possessions were being thrown into a garbage truck. I gave her another hug and carried on walking, my eyes stinging with tears.

The time soon came for me to leave Bowness. I was filthy, covered in mud and mosquito bites. I was sore from carrying buckets of mud up the stairs. But I was also happy. Happy to have helped people who so desperately needed it. Many of these people can not afford to hire people to do the cleaning. Many of these people are so overwhelmed that they don’t know where to begin.

The beautiful thing is that this isn’t just happening in Bowness. It’s happening in every single Calgary community that was hit by flood waters. On Monday there was a call put out for 600-700 volunteers to gather at McMahon stadium. 6000-7000 volunteers showed up. This city astounds me.

It’s going to take a long long time to clean up Calgary. The devastation is worse than it looks on TV. It’s everywhere. These people have lost everything. If you live in the city, I urge you to go to a community close to you and help. Just walk down the street like I did and offer to pitch in. You will not be turned away.

Krista is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Calgary. She’s also The Spectator Tribune’s Alberta Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KristaWiebe.

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