Calgary Floods Expose Human Character

Underpass in downtown Calgary June 21/2013 Photo owned by

Underpass in downtown Calgary June 21/2013
Photo owned by

Calgary residents are dumbfounded as their rivers, the Bow and Elbow run amok through downtown and other low-lying areas. As many as 100 thousand people have been evacuated, including hospital patients and long-term care residences. Many small communities in Southern Alberta are threatened by their waterways, which are usually no more than lazy creeks.

It is interesting to observe human behaviour in the face of crises.

Local police and politicians have begged people to stay home, stay off the roads but those pleas are unheeded. People park along the side of our busiest freeway, Deerfoot Trail, to get out of their cars to take pictures of the roaring Bow River. They imperil themselves and other motorists but they won’t stay away.

“Avoid the river”, the news chants, but the TV coverage is fraught with pictures of residents and news crews teetering on the edges of the floods only to scramble away as the waters rise. Pedestrians take pictures from bridges that are moments from being swept away.

Then there are the people who refuse to leave their homes, despite days of evacuation orders. Those stragglers, through their refusal to obey this common sense order, have to be rescued, endangering their heroic saviours and costing taxpayers money for equipment and personnel. As harsh as it may seem, I think the gene pool would be stronger if these  people suffered the natural consequences of their decisions.

We saw this in the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans. People knew the hurricane was approaching their city. They had days of warnings to leave. They chose to ignore those warnings. And when Katrina hit, they moaned and cried that the government didn’t rescue them on time or provide adequate services to keep their sorry butts alive and comfortable.

Personal responsibility is sorely lacking among the general populace.

Then there’s the habit of humans to build their cities on the flood plains of rivers. Some of the most expensive homes in Calgary are within 50 meters of the Elbow River on a good day. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of their decision to live so close to the river. Sure it’s a beautiful setting when all is well, but this is our third major flood in less than 20 years!

I remember my Grade Six Social teacher, the late Herb Hay, describing the function of flood plains, places for the spill-overs of too-full creeks and rivers. The paradox is that the flood plain usually affords easy access to a river and we are naturally attracted to water.

We often question the wisdom of societies that rebuild on the edge of a volcano after an eruption. Yet the residents of High River (a community south of Calgary) seem to mop up flood waters every spring. The entire town of 13,000 is currently (pardon the pun) evacuated; the river has invaded nearly every building in town.

But will they take a clue from their town’s name?

No, they will clean up, rebuild, and then do it all again in a few years or likely, next year. I’m curious how much provincial money has been spent on flood relief in that community over the years.

There have been reports of stores gouging customers on bottled water, a $5 case sells for $50, but overall, Calgarians have been civilized. In typical western fashion, they have come forward in droves to help their fellow citizens. So many have volunteered they’ve been asked to stay away for now.

Social media is full of offers of beds and meals and places for pets to stay. My daughter suggested it was social media that kept us informed and likely saved lives. Certainly it has been an effective medium for the demonstration of our human capacity for charity. I’m proud of my fellow Calgarians, (except the “flood-chasers”, of course).

City services have been remarkably reliable except in the worst-hit evacuated areas. (If you were supposed to leave, you deserve to be in the dark!) Despite the wet chaos, the crisis has been remarkably smooth and safe. It proves that emergency planning and training is effective.

The rain has subsided for the moment and the rivers appear to have crested in Calgary; they’re not yet receding but the hope is no further damage will occur. We have months of clean-up ahead of us and a new-found kindred-understanding of other flood survivors.

My hope is that all will be safe and that we will all be wiser for this experience.


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